Politics & Prejudices: Syrians and our shame 

When I was growing up, America had many flaws, but we were a strong, confident nation. We knew who we were and what we stood for. After the Hungarian uprising, we opened our doors to tens of thousands of refugees, without quivering in fear lest hidden secret KGB agents were among them.

We gave asylum to boat people from Vietnam; Cubans fleeing Castro; the victims of Nazis and a few who had been on the wrong side on that war. We were supremely confident that they would get here and want to become American.

And, mostly, they enthusiastically did. Lots of Syrians (a term once used for all Arab-Americans) flooded into Toledo, back in the day, and helped make that city prosperous.

Our openness to refugees, our ability and willingness to assimilate others was always the best part about this nation.

Then last month, many of our cowardly and contemptible so-called leaders covered themselves in disgrace.

Take Gov. Rick Snyder, for example. Less than two days after eight murderous terrorists shot up Paris, he was the first to announce that he wanted to slam the door in the face of Syrian refugees. "Our first priority is protecting the safety of our residents," he said, later adding, "when you have these events, doesn't it make sense you should pause?"

Sounds reasonable — until you look at the facts.

Consider this: There was absolutely no evidence that any Syrians had anything to do with the carnage in Paris.

According to Federica Mogherini, the vice president for security policy of the European Commission, every one of the dead terrorists identified was a citizen of some European nation, mostly France or Belgium. One Syrian passport was found in or near the corpse of a slain terrorist ...

But it was stolen, a fake, or most likely both. The man on the passport was a soldier loyal to Syrian President Bashir al-Assad who died months before November's attacks.

Copies of the same passport have turned up in Serbia and elsewhere. Now it is still possible that some Syrians may have been involved in Paris, but again, there was no evidence of that.

And in any event, since when is it American to condemn an entire nation and people because of a single individual?

Indeed, our sudden hysterical fear of Syrians is baffling, at least for those capable of rational thought. According to the U.S. State Department, 785,000 refugees of all flavors have been admitted to this country since Sept. 11, 2oo1.

How many of those were later arrested or expelled because of security concerns? Less than a dozen.

How many of those bad apples were Syrian?

That would be, ah ... zero.

Governor Snyder did finally accomplish something, however; he started a stampede of more than half the nation's governors to say they wanted to keep Syrians out.

They were followed, surprise, surprise, by a barrage of racist, xenophobic, and bigoted statements from what may be our nation's most disreputable and untrustworthy ethnic group; namely, the Republican presidential candidates.

Jeb Bush, who is struggling to get anybody to notice him, said we should allow only Syrian Christians in, not Muslims.

Marco Rubio, whose parents were Cuban refugees, said he didn't trust our government to be able to tell the difference between bad and good Syrians. The relentlessly outrageous Donald Trump, never one to be overtaken in the rush to fascism, talked about making Muslims register with the government and carry special religious ID cards.

Locally, however, nobody topped L. Brooks Patterson, the sad 76-year-old wreck who is still, bafflingly, Oakland County executive. Brooks, our local bishop of bad taste, is better known for his perpetually racist comments about Detroit.

Last year, for example, he told the New Yorker magazine that Detroit should be treated like "an Indian reservation. Build a fence around it and throw in the blankets and corn."

Such a charmer, our Brooksie. He hasn't gotten much attention lately, though, and he sought to get on the Syrian-bashing bandwagon by attacking refugees even more sensationally than anyone else. He claimed that Pontiac was planning to build a "Syrian refugee village within its borders."

He warned Pontiac's mayor that this constituted "imminent danger" and said there was no way they could prevent the refugees from including "one or two ISIS infiltrators," who, I presume, would destroy the abandoned Silverdome, or Patterson's stool at the local bar, or something.

However, Brooks ended up embarrassing mostly himself. Turns out that what's really going on is that some civic-minded developers have bought an old school and are renovating it to serve as a community center, with some nearby housing.

This is designed to serve immigrants who have been carefully screened, and who are not all Syrian. Nobody except Patterson has called it a "Syrian Refugee Village."

Andy Meisner, the Oakland County treasurer, pretty much told Brooks to stick a sock in it. "His comments politicize a project that will bring much-needed economic development to Pontiac and provide housing for people desperately in need who have undergone exhaustive background checks."

Whether Patterson is capable of embarrassment is questionable. But the man who should be more embarrassed is Rick Snyder. News flash: Governors have no power whatsoever to say whether refugees can or can't enter their state.

Richard Primus, a University of Michigan law professor, told Michigan Radio's Rick Pluta, "The federal government gets to decide who can be a citizen. The federal government gets to decide who can cross the border," he said.

What governors can do is request that immigrants be resettled in their states, something Snyder, to his credit, said he wanted to do before the violence in Paris.

Snyder said this request was what he wanted put on hold ... except he evidently never really made it after all. When he asked to see "documentation of the administration's request, the response was, there is none," Pluta reported.

"The pause the governor called for? There's nothing to pause," he said.

As if to underline gubernatorial impotence in refugee matters, a newly arrived Syrian refugee couple and their 9-year-old son arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Airport Nov. 20.

Rather than meeting them with a burning torch and a pitchfork, the governor greeted them warmly.

Why, he never meant to block any refugees in the pipeline, his spokesperson said. "Michigan is a welcoming state, and we are proud of our rich immigration heritage."

Sheesh. Glad that's clear. Well, I guess that for Ricky, it's back to slashing social services and pretending to fix the roads.

John Conyers runs again: Congressman John Conyers, who turns 87 next May, is well-known for sometimes being there, and sometimes, ah, not so much.

He has served in Congress longer than any other African-American, and nearly as long as anyone, ever. He was for impeaching Richard Nixon before anyone else was. He has a long and proud record that includes helping found the Congressional Black Caucus, making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday, and getting federal recognition of jazz as our own unique and distinctive art form.

Yet when his term is up, he will have been there 52 years. And you have to ask — isn't that enough for one man? Isn't there someone else among the 700,000 people in his district who deserves an opportunity to vigorously represent his people?

Conyers, if he is still living, will be re-elected easily next November. There's absolutely no doubt about that.

But really, rationally — should he run again?

More by Jack Lessenberry

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