Even though Rick Snyder has three years left as Michigan's governor, it's not too early to think legacy. He should be remembered as the nation's first governor to propose a ban — or as his administration calls it, a pause — on resettling Syrian refugees or others from the Middle East in Michigan. It unleashed the torrent of intolerance and religious bigotry that is so central to Republican politics.
He knew, or at least should have known, that such a stance was unenforceable and that as governor all he could do was make life even more difficult for people fleeing war and poverty, hunger and disease. What is happening to Syrians is a global tragedy; the disintegration of their country is the refugee issue, according to the United Nations.
Nearly a quarter million people have been killed in that nation's civil war. According to the relief agency World Vision, 4.3 million Syrians are refugees, and 6.6 million are displaced within Syria, half of them children. Most refugees have settled in the Middle East. Ten percent for have so gotten long, to Europe and a relatively few to the U.S., which had announced plans to accept 10,000.
Snyder's proclamation, made shortly after a Syrian passport was linked to the terrorist attack in Paris, is the sort of political theatrics one expects from governors in in the South, wacky stunts like Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott mobilizing the State Guard to monitor U.S. military training exercise and ensure Texans that "their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed."
Extreme, perhaps, but if Snyder really fears for the safety of Michiganders, the military is an option.
He is facing an insurrection. Cities, counties and townships throughout the state are openly challenging the governor. On Monday, the Lansing City Council and Mayor Virg Benero pledged that the city would aid refugees, designating Lansing a “welcoming community.” The East Lansing City Council and Ingham County Board of Commissioners have issued similar proclamations. So has Detroit, Meridian Township, Grand Rapids and Hamtramck — the first majority Muslim city in the U.S.
Snyder could mobilize the State Guard to surround the Capitol, patrol state office buildings and protect other Michigan soft targets. State Police could provide intelligence. Undercover operatives could infiltrate immigrant groups. Wouldn't this make us safer?
The governor has rejected assurances from the Obama Administration that the two-year-long refugee vetting process is sound even while acknowledging in a Nov. 24 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson that the program is “extensive and rigorous.”
Snyder couched his position on immigrants as a common-sense approach to resettlement to give authorities time to review vetting procedures. He wants the matter discussed by the bipartisan Council of Governors, which is meeting this month. But it isn't a bipartisan issue; it's pure politics. About half of the nation's governors — virtually all Republicans — have said their states won't accept Syrian refugees.
The refugee issue has entangled the governor — perhaps to his dismay — in bigotry and xenophobia shaping the political landscape. He attempted over the weekend to distance himself from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who wants to stop all Muslim immigration to the U.S.
“They're absolutely inappropriate," Snyder said of Trump's positions. "They don't represent the spirit of America." But while abhorring Trump's overt anti-Muslim stance, Snyder's refugee “pause” is anti-Muslim. It links all Muslims refugees in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries to the actions of those who distort their Islamic faith as justification for terrorist activities. For displaced Muslims seeking refuge in Michigan, it is guilt by association.
Of course, painting foreigners with this broad brush is very American. Look at our history. The Irish in the 1840s, invariably Catholics and suspected of loyalties to Rome, were viewed as subversives, competing for low -wage, low-status jobs. Southern Europeans — Italians notably — with darker skins and also Catholic were marginalized and worse. There were the Chinese Exclusion Acts, a longstanding quota system tilted toward Northern Europeans, Japanese internment during World War II, and current campaigns against Mexican immigrants.
Is there a more shameful chapter in our history than the refusal to admit more than 900 German Jewish refugees who in 1939 were anchored off the coast of Florida in the MS St. Louis?
Should we be surprised that now we turn against Muslims?
Snyder's position, like those of other governors, may be positioned as a a measure to protect Americans. But it is really about public relations, like the color coded threat warning system concocted by the government.
No system can be foolproof, especially for terrorists willing to die for their cause. And government vetting can only accomplish so much.
It took the Department of Defense, experts at vetting, 13 and a half years to discover that a “terrorist” imprisoned at Guantanamo — Mustafa Abd-al-Qawi Abd-al-Aziz al-Shamiri, finally released in November — was, in fact, the wrong man.
He is still in custody and when he's released, we know where he won't be going. That would be Michigan.