Guest column: Let in Syrian refugees

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The United States' acceptance of refugees has ranged from welcoming, to passive acceptance to total rejection. In the decades preceding the Civil War thousands of enslaved Negroes attempted to reach freedom by fleeing their southern masters and seeking refuge in northern states. Many slaves found their path to freedom by way of the covert Underground Railroad whose "conductors" guided them from one northern safe house, called a "station", to the next. The Underground Railroad operated unimpeded until the federal government, in 1850, passed the Fugitive Slave Act which made it not only illegal to harbor escaped slaves but empowered "slave hunters" to capture any negro found in a "Free State", whether a former slave or free person, and return them to slavery, thereby collecting a bounty.

In 1935, Adolph Hitler's Nazi government began to enact laws that would eventually lead to the murder of approximately six million Jews. In 1939, in an attempt to escape the increasing persecution, 908 Jews boarded the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner, with the hope of finding refuge in Cuba. However, when the ship arrived in Cuba, the Cuban government refused the refugees entry. Unable to dock, the ship's captain headed the St. Louis towards the United States and circled off the Florida coast seeking permission to land his passengers. The U.S. government denied his effort and he was forced to sail back to Europe where some passengers were accepted by countries soon to be engulfed in World War II. Some historians estimate that one-quarter of the MS St. Louis passengers perished in the holocaust.

In January, 1973, American military personnel began withdrawing from Viet Nam leaving the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam to resist the advance of the communist forces of North Vietnam. But South Vietnamese resistance collapsed and tens of thousands of civilians, government workers and military personnel tried to flee the country. On April 30, North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon, the South Vietnamese capitol. Recognizing that it had a responsibility to aid the refugees, the U.S. government quickly granted entry to many — provided that they had a U.S. sponsor. According to the International Rescue Committee, over the next twenty years approximately two million people fled Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam with one million eventually being resettled in the United States.

In the 1980s, thousands of Central Americans marked for death by murderous military dictatorships in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua fled north seeking asylum in the United States. The American government refused them entry lest their stories reveal that it was the United States that was arming, equipping, training and advising the military dictatorships. But the truth began to be heard, and 500 churches and synagogues around the United States provided sanctuary to the refugees thereby saving them from being deported back to their countries where they would surely have been murdered.

On November 17, Reuters reported that the governors of Michigan and Alabama joined with the governors of Oklahoma, Nebraska, Idaho, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Indiana, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Georgia, Maine, Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina and Iowa in announcing a no-entry policy for Syrian refugees.

On November 19, the New York Times reported that the U.S. House of Representatives passed a Bill, on a vote of 289 to 137, requiring the Director of the FBI, the Secretary of the Dept. of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence to confirm that each applicant from Syria posed no threat to the United States, thus making it nearly impossible for any refugee to enter.

On November 20, ten protestors gathered in front of the State House in Montpelier to speak out against Governor Shumlin's statement which said: "Syrian refugees, like immigrants from all nations in past years, will make America and Vermont a better place." At the same time, forty other Vermonters opposed the protestors by speaking out in support of Governor Shumlin.

"I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

It's now our time to open our golden doors to Syrian refugees.

— Greater Bennington Peace and Justice Center Trustees — Maryann St.John, Peter Lawrence, Jane Sobel, Dan Lucy, David O'Brien, Barbara MacIntyre, Claude DeLucia, Lin Sternberg, Ray Mullinaeux, Jim Prendergast, Lauryn Starkie Kreuder, Nathan Wallace Senft, and Andrew Schoerke


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