First I want to thank you for your service to the state of Tennessee in your role as governor. You have done great things in your term as governor including making education accessible to so many more Tennesseans who thought it was out of reach. You have been a model for the nation on how to make meaningful and significant changes in areas of great concern. I am proud of your work and proud to live in the great state of Tennessee.
As a loyal Tennessean, I have the privilege of praising your good work, but also the obligation to share my concerns for decisions that I see as running counter to the best interest of the state and running counter to the very core of who we are as a nation.
I recently learned that you have asked the Obama Administration to stop taking in Syrian refugees until a better vetting process can be established and consequently have decided not to take any of the 200-500 Syrian refugees who were slated to be resettled in Tennessee. With my greatest respect, this is a mistake.
It is a political mistake.
This is a political mistake because we are in a real and sustained war and, whether we like it or not, this is a war of ideas as much or more than it is a war of bullets and bombs. Governor Haslam, although we have better bullets and better bombs, our much better weapons are our better ideas. This nation is nothing without its refugees and immigrants, as the vast majority of people whose feet are on US soil can trace their lineage back to a people whose feet once stood on other soil, whether that be a year ago or five generations ago.
We must decide whether these words remain true:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Governor Haslam, we have better ideas. Our founding documents are guiding collection of ideas for the best government that has ever existed since the beginning of civilization. We are a nation of freedom and justice and we are ruled by the people, not a dictator or warlord. We have an opportunity to live out these ideas with people who have never had such an opportunity to do the same. We have the powerful weapons of better ideas embedded into the DNA of this nation and there is no better way to demonstrate to a people that our ideas are better than showing them through our actions of welcome and hospitality. Let’s participate in giving these people a taste of our better ideas.
It is a strategic mistake.
The fear is that some terrorists posing as refugees will get through the refugee resettlement process. Although it is impossible to guarantee 100% that this will not happen, the refugee resettlement process is not the gaping hole that some people fear that it is.
- There is no evidence that resettling refugees in the US has ever brought a flood or even a trickle of terrorists into the country.
- Refugees who resettle in the United States are at a lower risk for becoming radicalized than if they settle elsewhere. We have to think with a broad vision. We are not simply resettling people, we are engaging in a cultural intervention for a people who are having to decide who they will be from here on out. The worse the refugee resettlement situation is for the refugees, the higher the chance of people turning against us – especially if they thought they were going to be welcomed here and then were not.
- Waiting until a better vetting process can be established will function as a way permanently block Syrian refugees from entering the US. It may not be intended that way, but it will function that way. While they wait, they will resettle elsewhere in much worse and more dangerous situations. Waiting is tantamount to rejecting regardless of intention.
- The way we respond to the Syrian refugees is a communication to the world about the kind of people we are. Will the wealthiest nation in the history of the world be stingy? Will we respond out of fear that is more contained in a propaganda-like fear narrative than it is legitimate threat? The world is watching and everything we do defines who we are. Let’s show the world that we are a shining city on a hill and that the light we shine shines for all.
It is a cultural mistake.
One of the greatest parts of Tennessee culture is its special brand of Southern Hospitality. Tennessee specializes in delicious and diverse food, the best and most diverse music in the world, and a particular set of manners and kindness that is unique. Being a native Minnesotan, but in my 6th year living here in Middle Tennessee, I have been a non-stop beneficiary of the great Southern Hospitality of Tennessee. It would be hard to find another place that does hospitality better than Tennessee.
Therefore, the move to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Tennessee sounds like a dark and dissonant chord, out of tune with the prevailing cultural norms.
What I love best about the culture of hospitality is that is assumes risk. Having someone in your home assumes risk, always – even if you know them well. When I was new here in Tennessee, lots of people assumed the risk of getting to know the new family in town. What I have learned living here for over half a decade is that people are willing to assume the risk as well as the cost of hospitality in order to enjoy the sharing of their food, time, and stories – the sharing of lives is worth the risk.
Furthermore, Tennessee hospitality is contagious. Once you have been on the receiving end of it, it is natural to want to be on the giving end of it. You open your house, kitchen, and life to me and I want to do the same for you and for others who are new and uncertain about their place here.
And though it is out of place to address a politician with religion (my apologies in advance), it is also a theological mistake.
The driving theme in the Jewish and Christian scriptures is to welcome the refugee and treat them with kindness as opposed to reject or delay them until we have 100% eliminated all risk.
Governor Haslam, I understand that it would come at a political cost for you to reverse your request to President Obama to halt the flow of Syrian refugees into the US. To express the immediate welcome of Syrian refugees would not be a politically popular move right now with many of your constituents. At the same time, you have time and time again demonstrated your willingness to take political risks to do the right thing. Your persistence with health care coverage is obvious evidence for your political courage. You have a track record of doing good things over defaulting to that which only earns political gain. You are a wise and strong politician precisely because you do not simply make decisions based on making political gains, but rather on making good choices no matter the cost.
My encouragement to you is to do it again.
Please reconsider your position on Syrian refugees and let them have a taste of American ideas of freedom and justice now. Let them feel the great acceptance of the unique and wonderful brand of Southern hospitality only Tennessee can offer.
You have the power to help the world see who we really are.
Chris Gonzalez, Ph.D.