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America doesn't turn its back on refugees

People view the Statue of Liberty in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty)
People view the Statue of Liberty in New York, N.Y.

This week, we've seen politicians launch an ugly, vicious campaign against Syrian refugees. They've singled out this group of people for partisan gain. In doing so, they're ignoring basic humanity.

I’ve been representing Syrians fleeing persecution in Syria since the turmoil began in 2011. In all my years as an attorney, I have never encountered a more vulnerable and frightened group of refugees. To a person, the Syrians I’ve represented have sat in my office terrified, their fear of being sent back to Syria palpable. In painstaking detail, they recount the horror of the arrests, disappearance and murder of loved ones, close friends and colleagues. With the chaos that has enveloped their country, they describe the horror that would befall them if ISIS or some other terrorist gang invaded their homes. 

"In all my years as an attorney, I have never encountered a more vulnerable and frightened group of refugees."'

One story is more terrifying than the next. The Syrian refugees include doctors targeted by the regime and rebel groups alike who aim to ‘neutralize’ their medical skills to keep them from treating a potential political or religious rival; LGBT Syrians targeted for their sexual orientation and political beliefs; and women fleeing violence to protect their children and themselves. 

The Syrian clients I have been so privileged to represent have come to America, like generations of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers before them, in search of a safe haven, freedom, and a better life for their children. Now is not the time to follow the lead of cynical politicians who seek to exploit the horrific tragedies in Paris, Beirut and Sinai for political purposes. Now is not the time to recoil in fear and xenophobia. Now is the time to stand tall as Americans and protect our nation’s great legacy as a beacon of hope, safety and freedom for all refugees who grace our shores.

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I am also the son of a refugee. My father, his parents and younger brother fled the horror of Nazi Germany in 1938, shortly before Kristallnacht. They were among the lucky ones, able to enter the U.S. on the limited number of quota visas that were allotted to Jewish refugees of Hitler’s Germany. 

Most Jews were not so fortunate, including my grandmother’s sister, who was murdered by the SS in a Nazi death camp. At the time, allowing Jews fleeing Nazi Germany safe haven in the U.S. was not popular. In an informative piece published Tuesday in The Washington PostIshaan Tharoor recounts a poll published in Fortune magazine in 1938 showing that less than 5% of Americans "believed that the United States should raise its immigration quotas or encourage political refugees fleeing the fascist states in Europe — the vast majority of whom were Jewish — to voyage across the Atlantic. Two-thirds of the respondents, meanwhile, agreed with the proposition that 'we should try to keep them out.'"

Even more chillingly, Tharoor writes: "Two-thirds of Americans polled in January 1939 — now well after the events of Kristallnacht — said they would not take in 10,000 German Jewish refugee children."

VIDEO: Many US governors reluctant to accept Syrian refugees

In the aftermath of ISIS’s horrific attacks on Paris and Beirut, we must ask ourselves a fundamental question: Are we going to turn our backs on those fleeing the terror of Assad and ISIS? Some politicians, including candidates for president and governors, have predictably answered by calling for a ban on Syrian refugees. Others have cynically chosen to exploit the tragedy to further their ugly, nativist anti-immigrant agenda.

If we follow the lead of those who trade in fear and xenophobia, we will compromise the very principles upon which this great nation was founded. Closing the door to Syrian refugees would be a shameful abdication of America’s global leadership role. Europe’s right wing anti-immigrant parties will win the day and refugees fleeing war and persecution will be either trapped in a land where 250,000 have died or we’ll see more children’s bodies washed up on the shores of Europe and, likely, America. 

"The Syrian refugee crisis presents Americans with an historical challenge to define our essence as a people, as a culture, and as a country. What kind of a nation do we want to be?"'

Fundamentally, the Syrian refugee crisis presents Americans with an historical challenge to define our essence as a people, as a culture, and as a country. It forces us to consider where we have been and where we are going. What kind of a nation do we want to be? Do we want to be a welcoming nation that opens its arms to people from all over the world, and from all walks of life, or do we want to turn our backs on those in need, and restrict critical opportunities for engineers, entrepreneurs, researchers and scientists like Albert Einstein, who was, by the way, a refugee?

I know which nation I want.

We will never know how many murdered Jews, Gypsies, LGBT and others would have survived the war had the U.S. opened its doors as Hitler’s killing machine was gearing up. We will never know which murdered children might have grown up to become renowned scientists, artists, writers or world leaders. What we do know is that America’s decision to slam the door shut in the face of refugees was a decision that we, as a nation, have lived to regret.

We should not repeat that grave mistake.

David Leopold is a Cleveland based immigration attorney and the former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.