My wife and I used to frequent a certain Chinese restaurant, in part because of a particular server.
He was a pleasant man with a quick smile and helpful menu suggestions. Also, he was a refugee from Cambodia, and his story was so compelling that, the first time we heard it, we stayed long after our meal was done to listen to him.
He told of escaping through the jungle. He described the leaky boat he and his family used to
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escape the country; how it was so overcrowded it nearly sank. He was just a boy at the time, and he vividly recalled sitting at the edge of the boat, watching the water come within inches of spilling over the side.
Refugees tend to have a unique take on America and freedom. The ones I have known cling to it like shelter in a storm.
That includes Luc Pham, a native of Vietnam who spent three years in a refugee camp before escaping through the jungle and, again, using a leaky boat to cross the ocean. He was terrified because he did not know how to swim. I wrote about him years ago, shortly after he was named teacher of the year in the Salt Lake School District.
Pham, like virtually every refugee who has come to the United States, had to put up with discrimination, suspicion and even hatred. He told me, "They don't realize that if there was a war tomorrow I would fight with them on their side. … I am an American."
Terrorists, as the name implies, spend their days thinking of how to spread terror. They win, to a large degree, if they can separate us from ourselves, our values and our core beliefs. Often, we are too willing to go along.
One of the ISIS operatives who attacked France last Friday apparently entered Europe under refugee status. If his aim, in addition to killing many people in France, was to harm the many refugees fleeing Syria because of the murder and torture inflected by his colleagues, he appears to have succeeded.
At least 24 governors in the United States (the number seems to be shifting quickly) have signed executive orders or sent requests to Washington to put an end to receiving any more Syrian refugees in their states.
On Monday, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert told the state Department of Public Safety to re-evaluate how Washington decides which refugees to accept. A Deseret News story said his spokesman acknowledged the governor had not ruled out the possibility he would try to stop Syrian refugees from coming here.
The dim light of crisis can make easy and ineffective solutions seem attractive. Certainly, it isn’t completely outside the realm of possibility to believe that if one group of terrorists had the patience to live within the fabric of orderly society and take flying lessons, all in anticipation of conducting a surprise attack on 9/11, others might embed themselves in refugee camps on the off chance they eventually would come to the United States.
But it’s unlikely. The process can take up to three years. No other entrants into the United States undergo such scrutiny and uncertainty, and we’re accepting far fewer of them than many other countries.
Herbert and his fellow governors should be more concerned about the many American citizens, already living here, who are joining ISIS. National Intelligence Director James Clapper told CNN earlier this year they numbered, at that time, about 180.
Christopher Cornell was one of them. The 20-year-old from Cincinnati planned to set off pipe bombs at the U.S. Capitol, then join with a friend to shoot people as they fled.
Three other men were arrested in New York and Florida this year, accused of planning to kill the president and some law enforcement officers.
Americans seem to have varying degrees of reaction to the war on terror, depending on the news of the day. They revile against their own government for spying. Then, when a crisis hits, they rally to close the borders and treat people of certain nationalities with suspicion.
Our friend, the waiter, knew all about those reactions. He still knew he did the right thing by risking everything to get here. Many of us have ancestors with similar stories.
Only a fool would use heritage and history as reasons to allow an enemy easy access. But if we punish the meager number of refugees coming to this country, we are wasting energy and aiding that enemy.