A steady rain did not deter people from gathering Saturday for a pair of political events on opposites sides of the State Capitol, and opposite sides of the Syrian refugee issue.
On one side, more than 200 people gathered on the capitol steps to listen to a series of speakers advocating in favor of welcoming Syrian refugees to Connecticut at an event called “Say YES to Syrian Refugees!”
Former U.S. Senate candidate Matthew Oakes organized the event, with a call to action that said, in part, “Those of us who do not live in fear or paranoia must come out and counter the barrage of ignorance, bigotry and xenophobia . . . We must NOT blindly judge entire groups of people based on a lack of knowledge.”
On the other side near Capitol Avenue, a group of 30 people gathered in opposition to allowing Syrian refugees to settle in Connecticut at an event called “Say NO to Syrian Refugees!” The group’s event page said their intention was “to voice the grievances, pitfalls, and security risks the dragnet refugee programs pose to Connecticut communities” and suggested, among other things, that “the refugee program poses a dire threat to our domestic security, economic stability, social, and medical services . . . Until refuges can be thoroughly filtered, and a more reliable, systematic method of accepting refuges is implemented, we must stand in opposition.”
Members of this group, which was organized by Angelia Balch, spoke to members of the news media near Capitol Avenue before marching two miles to the governor’s mansion where they lined the sidewalk to let Gov. Dannel P. Malloy know how they feel about the issue.
Malloy has advocated in favor of welcoming refugees to Connecticut and has also said the U.S. government’s vetting process for refugees is the most strigent in the world.
But Balch and her group are not convinced by such assurances from Malloy or the federal government. Asked what she hoped to accomplish by marching Saturday, Balch said, “We need to have a secure vetting process in place before we even remotely think about taking in any refugees. She also referenced H.R.3314 as a bill that “needs to be passed.”
Balch was referring to the Resettlement Accountability National Security Act of 2015, which would prohibit the admission of refugees into the United States until Congress passes a joint resolution giving the Department of Homeland Security authority to resume admitting refugees. The legislation has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.
Asked what, in particular she thought should be changed about the current vetting process of refugees, which reportedly takes months or years, Balch said she understood that the process is not short. “However, I feel it needs to be more secure” and that federal authorities don’t have access to enough information about refugees seeking entry into the U.S.
On the other side of the Capitol Building, Norman Clement, a native American activist and member of ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), offered another perspective on the refugees and suggested the U.S. government’s activities in the Middle East destabilized the region and created the refugee crisis.
“From first contact until today, this government has been in a never-ending war of conquest,” Clement told the crowd. “The insatiable quest for more and more markets and more and more profits cause death and destruction everywhere that capitalism goes . . . Oppressed people who are forced to migrate for whatever reason do not create . . . violence and oppression and exploitation. They are the victims. They are the victims who are doing what anyone would do facing a dangerous or an insecure future for their families. They are our brothers and sisters.”
Clement was followed by other speakers including Mongi Dhaouadi, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, who said America needs to open its doors to refugees, and he reminded the opposition that the Syrian people have been known to never close their door to refugees in the region, regardless of race or religion.
Dhaouadi said there are facts and fiction, ignorance and knowledge in the ongoing conflict about refugees in America. He said the Syrian crisis is not a refugee crisis — there is a bigger problem, and Americans need to realize that the region has suffered from colonialism and exploitation by western nations. “We created a bigger mess,” Dhaouadi said, and added that the problem will not be solved through proxy wars or support for extremist groups.
“The majority of American people are confused. They do not have the facts,” Dhaouadi said, adding that if ISIS or any other extremist groups want to infiltrate the U.S., there are easier ways to get in than through the refugee system, which he also described as the world’s toughest. He said it’s easier to come in as a student or a worker through the visa program.
“So do not buy into this hype that we are afraid that they are going to infiltrate this country and cause harm through the refugee system. It is not true,” Dhaouadi said. “Let us go out and seek those who are seeking the truth and sit down with them in the spirit of Thanksgiving, in the spirit of openness, and let us invite them to a reasonable dialogue. Because I believe if we present the facts, if we present our case, we will win them over.”
He also said people need to contact their congressional delegates — including Connecticut Democrats Joe Courtney and Jim Himes, each of whom voted in favor of H.R. 4083. The bill would not allow Syrian and Iraqi refugees access into the United States until the Federal Bureau of Investigation certifies that each individual does not pose a security threat. Dhaouadi said voters should call and convince them to reconsider their votes based on facts.
Hartford Attorney Peter Goselin also spoke, and said the Syrian refugee issue fits neatly into the racist history of state’s rights discussions in America. The “state’s rights” argument was used to try to justify racism on numerous occasions in U.S. history, and Goselin outlined several instances before drawing the new inference to opposition to Syrian refugees:
“And now, yet another lie, state’s rights says you have the right to defy federal immigration policy. People who are here lawfully in the United States can be told, ‘no you cannot come to our state.’ That’s the legacy of state’s rights,” Goselin said. “When Donald Trump stands up and spews his hate . . . It’s not something that’s happening in a vacuum. It’s not because he’s just a bad person. It’s a legacy of hundreds of years of state’s rights rhetoric based on the idea of segregation, exclusion, bigotry and xenophobia. And that’s what we’re here to stand up against because we’re not going to take it . . . The notion that any state has the ability to decide who can be here and who can’t — it’s nonsense.”
Goselin said he wanted to emphasize the fact that the governors who have been declaring their states off-limits to refugees have no right or authority to do so.
“When the governor of a state stands up and announces that his state will not allow refugees — he knows — he knows that he’s telling a lie,” Goselin said. “He knows that he is telling his constituents something that is simply not true. He knows he has no ability to enforce it. So then you have to ask yourself, well if a governor knows, or a senator or a congressman, if they know that this is not possible, and it’s not legal, and that no court in the land would uphold it, why do they say it? Why do they pretend that it’s true? And there is only one reason because their goal is to whip up as much bigotry, racism, xenophobia, and hatred as they possibly can. That’s their agenda.”