The terrorist attack in Paris that left 129 dead has sparked two reactions in this country, one that's entirely in keeping with the American experience and one that's entirely not. In Washington and Tallahassee, in state capitals across the country and on the presidential campaign trail, the attacks are being used as a pretext to close the door to Syrian refugees and to erect even higher walls to keep immigrants out. Meanwhile, mayors in St. Petersburg, Tampa and elsewhere are appealing to the nation's conscience and pointing out the rich contributions that immigrants have made to their states and communities. This is a time for reason and altruism to carry the day, not the politics of bigotry or fear.
As arrests and raids continue, French authorities still have not identified all of those they suspect of having participated in the attack. But that didn't stop the Republican-controlled U.S. House on Thursday from passing a bill to block President Barack Obama's plan to accept up to 10,000 refugees this year from war-torn Syria. Anxious lawmakers say a fake Syrian passport that may be tied to one of the Paris attackers raises concerns that terrorists could blend in with the exodus of Syrian refugees entering the United States. More than half the nation's governors — most of them Republican, including Gov. Rick Scott — have called on the federal government to put the brakes on plans to accept more Syrian refugees. The same message is coming from conservative mayors and major Republican presidential candidates. At a campaign stop Thursday in Alabama, candidate Ben Carson likened the tougher screening to handling a "mad dog."
The audacity of the attacks and the mind-numbing death toll reinforce that terror networks present a clear and continuing threat. The allied bombing of Islamic State-held positions in Iraq and Syria also presents the extremists with an excuse to strike back against civilian targets such as those singled out in Paris on Nov. 13. But taking the grief, fear and frustration out on those fleeing Syria's civil war is cold-hearted pandering, and it ignores the protections in place within the immigration system and the security gains to be made from acting humanely in the face of violence. The House legislation, which Republicans from Tampa Bay and elsewhere supported, would effectively freeze the entry of Syrian nationals and require the FBI and other national security agencies to certify the safety of individual refugees.
But the screening process is already lengthy and exhaustive, involving background checks by the United Nations and U.S. government agencies. Only about half of those applying pass the test, and of the 1,800 Syrians who have resettled here the past year, roughly half are children and one-fourth are over the age of 60. Only about 2 percent are single males of combat age. If America wants to root out terrorists, it has plenty of other issues to worry about.
Obama said he will veto the legislation, as he should, and he sent word to governors like Scott that they cannot make foreign policy any more than they can declare war. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman also struck the right note with their strong defense of America's immigrant history and their willingness to accept more Syrian refugees in their communities. Hillsborough accepted more Syrian refugees last year than anywhere in the state, while Pinellas ranked third. The desire to help is second nature to this nation, and communities have the willingness and capacity to lend a helping hand. When it returns after Thanksgiving, the Senate should block the legislation, which does not represent this nation's values or improve its long-term national security.