The Costly Xenophobia of Michigan GOP Lawmakers

Donald Trump’s got nothing on Michigan’s GOP xenophobes. Just as Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Sen. Gary Peters, and Gov. Rick Snyder put out the welcome mat encouraging Syrian refugees to consider calling the Motor City their new home, churlish Republican lawmakers in Lansing introduced legislation to prevent cities, counties, villages, and townships from creating sanctuaries for international refugees.

Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees Oct. 2, 2015, Photo: M. Fleming, UNHCR

Senate Bill 445 would prohibit communities from offering sanctuary to individuals lacking proper documentation. If passed into law, it would require local law enforcement agencies to act as gatekeepers, with a laundry list of onerous regulatory burdens, including regular reports to the Legislature proving they are laser-beam focused on throwing-out “illegals.” Failure to comply is not an option, the entirety of a municipality’s annual revenue sharing would be forfeited if they buck the proposed law. The not-exactly-liberal Michigan Municipal League had this to say about it:

“In addition to the bill’s obvious attack on local control and the needless unfunded mandatory reporting, the committee heard testimony from multiple individuals expressing concern about the message that a bill like this will send to the immigrant community. Municipalities and their employees could face increased liability and it decreases law enforcement’s discretion to perform their jobs.  Most troubling, though is the attempt to penalize every community in Michigan, regardless of size or their involvement in this issue, by holding revenue sharing hostage.  Even communities that do not offer their own law enforcement services would be subject to these mandates and potential penalties.”

There are already too many federal regulatory hoops for Michigan to jump through impeding its ability to welcome refugees — the state is currently limited to accepting no more than 4,200 per year. Pile on the political animus that seems to be core to the GOP presidential slate, and the displaced Syrian middle-class may just take their considerable talents and work ethic elsewhere.

However, international law may trump Trump and the Michigan Senate. These leaders all display a fundamental misunderstanding of the basics.

Let’s start with how frequently we hear the casual conflation of the terms “migrant”, “immigrant”, and “refugee” — words that have distinctly different legal meanings. Per the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR):

“Refugees are forced to flee because of a threat of persecution and because they lack the protection of their own country. A migrant, in comparison, may leave his or her country for many reasons that are not related to persecution, such as for the purposes of employment, family reunification or study. A migrant continues to enjoy the protection of his or her own government, even when abroad.”

International law on refugees is clear as dictated by the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and as further amended to expand its scope in 1967 to define and protect refugees worldwide. That body of law itself is sufficient to afford safe harbor to those in need.

No Person is Illegal

“No Person is Illegal” Austrian kids protest, photo: M.Fleming, UNHCR

The UNHCR provides a short list of basic human rights protected under international law for refugees:

  • The right not to be expelled
  • The right not to be punished for illegal entry
  • The right to employment
  • The right to housing
  • The right to an education
  • The right to public relief and assistance
  • The right to freedom of religion
  • The right to access the courts
  • The right to free movement
  • The right to be issued identity and travel documents

Over a quarter million Syrian citizens have lost their lives* in the civil war. Syrian leadership, now with the help of Russia, has made flight a do-or-die imperative. Those fleeing the crumbling nation have certainly earned the title “refugee”, with the vast majority having been taken-in by neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. By comparison, the European and American response has been pathetic.

UN tweet

The shameful irony of the concerted efforts to thwart the resettlement of these war-weary refugees is that prior to Syria’s internal conflict that nation was host to many times more desperate expats than any single European nation is currently being asked to absorb. In 2010, Syria hosted over 1.3 million refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, and Iran. They were not held in squalid camps, but were integrated into communities, poor as the Syrians were. Children were enrolled in schools. Healthcare, food assistance, and vocational training were made available, additionally, micro-loans and grants were offered to help families start a new life. The cost was in the millions — with UNHCR support, $90.1 million was spent in Syria as of 2010.

And now it’s our turn. There are currently more than 4 million UNHCR registered Syrian refugees, just over half of them are children, and with the stepped-up bombing campaign, these numbers are sure to continue to swell.

Michigan lawmakers must get out of the xenophobia business and allow these families to find a home in our state. If they’re truly worried about the threat of terrorism, they should focus on the white American male demographic instead.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Want to help? Click HERE to make a tax-deductible gift to UNHCR.

Updated 10-7-15. *The estimated number of Syrians who have lost their lives varies depending on the source.

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