A Letter To The 31 Governors Seeking to Turn Away Syrian Refugees

(Francis Stewart // Flickr).

Dear Governors,

I read recently you have decided to attempt to turn away refugees of the Syrian civil war who will seek asylum in the United States and seek to settle in your state. I am a law student, and one of my professors recently shared a lengthy, but important legal justification for turning away Syrian refugees, written by a nationally renowned legal scholar. I want to share five very important excerpts with you as you seek to defend your decision to the rest of the country, and ultimately, the world:

  1. “It should be noted, to begin with, that all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect. That is not to say that all such restrictions are unconstitutional. It is to say that courts must subject them to the most rigid scrutiny. Pressing public necessity may sometimes justify the existence of such restrictions; racial antagonism never can.
  2. “But exclusion from a threatened area, no less than turning refugees away, has a definite and close relationship to the prevention of espionage and sabotage. Exclusion of those refugees of Syrian origin is deemed necessary because of the presence of an unascertained number of disloyal members of the group, most of whom we have no doubt are loyal to this country…In the instant case, temporary exclusion of the entire group is rested by this state on the same ground.”
  3. “That there are members of the group who retained loyalties to ISIS has been confirmed by investigations made subsequent to the refugee crisis.”
  4. Compulsory exclusion of large groups of Syrian refugees from this country, except under circumstances of direst emergency and peril, is inconsistent with our basic governmental institutions. But when under conditions of modern warfare our shores are threatened by hostile forces, the power to protect must be commensurate with the threatened danger.”
  5. “To cast this case into outlines of racial prejudice, without reference to the real military dangers which are presented, merely confuses the issue…There is evidence of disloyalty on the part of some, the military authorities consider that the need for action is great, and time is short.”

The author, Hugo Black, has been dead for 44 years. The full text of the piece, written 71 years ago, is available here. It was the majority opinion in Korematsu v. United States, a 1944 Supreme Court decision upholding the forced relocation and detention of over 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. I changed a small part of the wordings to better reflect your recent sentiments on Syrian refugees.

Korematsu is widely considered one of the worst decisions of all time, and a stain on our national integrity.

I wanted to share it with you because amidst the fog of war, you have reopened a particularly nefarious chapter of history. In your haste to respond to the horrific violence wrought by the Islamic State, you have overreacted to the exclusion of logic and common sense to deny a few thousand men, women, and children the chance to seek solace from their suffering. The arguments supporting your position are not nearly as strong as the bombastic tone in which you deliver them.

For example, nearly all of you have cited security concerns, mentioning that one of the individuals involved in the horrific attacks on Paris last weekend was found with a Syrian passport, and had passed into Europe through Greece with a group of refugees. But between 2001 and 2013, over 1.5 million permanent residents have entered this country legally from majority Muslim nations like Syria. 387,938 of them are refugees.

President Obama has called upon our nation to accept 10,000 refugees, who you should remember are fleeing the same violent extremism you seek to ascribe to them. We have already accepted 2,200 refugees from the Syrian civil war, mostly in the last year. Not a single one of the refugees from either group has been arrested for domestic terrorism. Even after the horrible attacks on Paris, French President François Hollande reaffirmed his country’s commitment to welcome 30,000 refugees over the next two years.

According to data gathered by Scientific American, the citizens of your respective states are more likely to be crushed by their own furniture, killed by lightening, or drowned in their bathtub than they are to be killed by terrorism.

A few months ago, many of you roundly mocked the Black Lives Matter movement by proclaiming, “All lives matter.” Did you forget to footnote an exception for Syrian refugees?

Your concerns about vetting refugees are legitimate but overshadowed by your shortsightedness. In order to enter this country, all refugees are subject to a screening process that includes an interview, a medical assessment, and a strict background check. The process takes over a year and a half. A deputy State Department spokesman told CNN it was “the most stringent security process for anyone entering the United States.”

The Syrian passport found near the body of a Paris attacker had been stolen from a Syrian soldier who died months ago, and was flashed by the attacker to enter Europe as a refugee. Such a tactic would have no chance to succeed for a faux-refugee attempting to enter the United States. And yet, in the light of new information proving old concerns false, your rhetoric persists, suggesting your concern is less for national security and more to appeal to a xenophobic block of voters.

If ISIS really wants to infiltrate the United States, why would they choose to do so in the hardest way imaginable, given a timeframe their organization may never live to see, and especially given the numerous other, comparatively easier ways to illegally enter the country?

In this war, the United States and the Syrian refugees fear a common enemy. It is an enemy that is only strengthened by our division, and further animosity among our ranks only weakens us in the face of our struggle to eliminate global terrorism. It is exactly what ISIS wants.

Moreover, this country prides itself on learning from our mistakes. The legacy of the large-scale round-up of Japanese Americans during World War II and the terrible judicial consent rendered to that operation is one of contrition, compassion and apology in this country. It should not be one we repeat each time the safety of our nation is threatened.


Nathaniel Haas is a law student at the USC Gould School of Law, and received his undergraduate degree from USC in 2015 with a double major in political science and economics. His work as a journalist covering national politics and sexual assault has been featured in POLITICO and The Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter here, send him an e-mail here, or join his mailing list here.

Like what you read? Give Nathaniel Haas a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.