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Honda, Lee, Farr vote against Visa Waiver reform

The House voted 407-19 Tuesday to tighten the Visa Waiver Program that lets people from certain countries travel to the United States without first obtaining a visa – a reaction to fear of terrorism, particularly given the roles of French and Belgian nationals in last month’s Paris attacks.

But three Northern California members – Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose; Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; and Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel – were among the few who voted against HR 158.

The bill would require visas for anyone who’s been in Iraq or Syria in the previous five years; exceptions are made for official government visits and military service. Countries in the visa waiver program would also be required to share counterterror information with the U.S. or face expulsion from the program. All travelers would be checked against Interpol databases, and visa waiver countries would be required to issue “e-passports” with biometric information.

Sam FarrFarr this evening said the bill “casts too wide a net to be effective. Throwing anyone who travels to Syria or Iraq into the same category as suspected terrorists won’t help us catch the bad guys but it will harm humanitarian efforts there. Investing in better human intel is how we will stop them, not by disrupting tourist travel to the United States.”

Honda went into more detail, noting that although he strongly supports the need for increased security in the Visa Waiver Program, he voted against this bill “because it unjustly targets individuals based on their nationality.”

He said the program, used by 20 million people per year from 38 countries, is far less secure than the two-year screening process to which refugees are subjected, and needs to be improved. He said he supports some parts of this bill, including requiring all travelers to be checked against INTERPOL databases, using fraud-resistant e-passports with biometric information to protect against false identities, and strengthening background check procedures and information-sharing.

honda.jpg“I cannot, however, vote for a bill that categorically bars access to the Visa Waiver Program for dual nationals of Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Iran and people who have traveled in the last 5 years to Iraq and Syria, including humanitarian workers,” Honda said. “Under this bill, a French citizen of Syrian descent who has never been to Syria would still fall into this blanket category. Since the Visa Waiver Program functions on reciprocity, I am also concerned that this bill will trigger restrictions from other countries on travel for Iraqi, Syrian, Sudanese, and Iranian Americans.”

“I reject the stereotype that Arabs and Muslims are terrorists and I strongly oppose the targeting of people from these specific countries,” he continued. “I know what it is be singled out as a threat and potential enemy due to nationality, despite a lack of evidence and despite being an American citizen. We can and must protect Americans without compromising American values. It is time to refuse wartime hysteria and prejudice based on nationality, and instead show true political leadership.”

UPDATE @ 12:14 P.M. WEDNESDAY: Lee said she shares “the concerns of the ACLU, AILA, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and others that this bill would allow for the discrimination of individuals based on their nationality. We cannot let fear drive us to create bad policies. Congress can and should carefully examine the visa waiver program and I will work to support changes which do not open the door for blanket discrimination.”

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California Endowment grants will help refugees

The California Endowment will make emergency relief grants available to several organizations helping Syrian refugees arriving in the Golden State, it announced Tuesday.

CalEndowWith more than $3 billion in assets, the foundation is one of the nation’s largest private healthcare foundations, created in 1996 when Blue Cross of California acquired the for-profit subsidiary WellPoint Health Networks.

“This is a moment to stand up for our values as Americans,” Dr. Robert Ross, the California Endowment’s president and CEO, said in a news release. “Inclusion and compassion are at the core of The Endowment’s mission to create healthier communities across our great state. We are committed to do our part and support Governor Brown’s decision to welcome refugees to California.”

More than half the nation’s governors, mostly Republicans, have spoken out against accepting refugees from the civil war that has wracked Syria for years. But Gov. Jerry Brown said last week he’ll work closely with President Barack Obama to ensure any Syrian refugees coming to California are “fully vetted in a sophisticated and utterly reliable way.”

The endowment will make small, one-time-only emergency grants available to several community-based organizations support Syrian refugees, designed to increase those organizations’ capacity in select California communities where refugees will be arriving.

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American nativism is nothing new.

The post-Paris hysteria toward Syrian refugees in particular and Muslims in general spurred me to seek examples of how various groups coming to America have been cast in the past.

The results are depressing, to say the least – America has a long, storied history of barring, fearing, imprisoning or killing the outsider. The only solace I find is that ultimately, each of the groups mentioned below – German, Irish, Catholic, Italian, Chinese, Jewish and Japanese – have in time become inextricable, welcomed parts of the American fabric.

How history will look back on us?

“Few of their children in the country learn English … The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages … Unless the stream of their importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.”
— Benjamin Franklin, 1753, regarding German immigrants to the Pennsylvania colony

“If the potentates of Europe have no design upon our liberties, what means the paying of the passage and emptying out upon our shores such floods of pauper emigrants — the contents of the poor house and the sweepings of the streets? — multiplying tumults and violence, filling our prisons, and crowding our poor-houses, and quadrupling our taxation, and sending annually accumulating thousands to the poll to lay their inexperienced hand upon the helm of our power?”
— the Rev. Lyman Beecher, 1834

“Away with Austrian and Popish precedent… This war is a war of principles; it is on the open field of free discussion; and the victory is to be won by the exercise of moral energy, by the force of religious and political truth. But still it is a war, and all true patriots must awake to the cry of danger. They must up and gird themselves for battle. It is no false alarm. Our liberties are in danger. The Philistines are upon us. Their bonds are prepared, and they intend, if they can, to fasten them upon our limbs. We must shake off our lethargy, and like the giant awaking from his sleep, snap these shackles asunder. We are attacked in vulnerable points by foreign enemies to all liberty.”
— Samuel F.B. Morse, in “Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States,” 1835

“When the hordes of other lands are permitted to come here, as is the case daily; when ignorance, poverty, crime is allowed to land upon our shores and be transformed, hardly without ceremony, and with no time to learn the nature of our institutions, into what is called the ‘American’ citizens—when these things are done, it is time that good men lifted their arms and sounded their voices against the abomination. … Because it is every day weakening the strength, and destroying the character of the country. America can only be America by keeping it American. Its halls of legislation must reflect American sentiment, uttered by American tongues. There is no avoiding this position. Americans must fill our offices, great and small.”
–The Know Nothing and American Crusader (a Boston newspaper), 1854, speaking mainly of Irish, German and Catholic immigrants

“Nor can there be any doubt that the mob’s victims were desperate ruffians and murderers. These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigations. Our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they. Our own murderers are men of feeling and nobility compared to them.”
–New York Times editorial, 1891, on the lynching of 11 Italian-Americans lynched after nine were acquitted of the murder of New Orelans’ police chief; two others hadn’t been charged at all in the case

“Standing behind them are Christian employers of this land, who would rather import heathen willing to work for barely enough to sustain life than retain a brother Christian at a wage sufficient to live as becomes a Christian. We do not want Opium or the Chinese who grow it.”
— Terence Powderly, Irish-American labor leader, 1892

“We are being made a dumping ground. We are receiving the dependents, the human wreckage of the war; not the strength and virility that once came to hew our forests and till our soil. And worst of all, they are coming in such numbers at a time when we are unable adequately to take care of them… It simply amounts to unrestricted and indiscriminate dumping into this country of people of every character and description…If there were in existence a ship that could hold three million human beings, then three million Jews of Poland would board to escape to America.”
— report of the Congressional Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, chaired by Albert Johnson, R-Wash., 1920 (after pogroms in Russia and Poland provoked a wave of immigration)

“The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted. To conclude otherwise is to expect that children born of white parents on Japanese soil sever all racial affinity and become loyal Japanese subjects, ready to fight and, if necessary, to die for Japan in a war against the nation of their parents. That Japan is allied with Germany and Italy in this struggle is not ground for assuming that any Japanese, barred from assimilation by convention as he is, though born and raised in the United States, will not turn against this nation when the final test of loyalty comes. It, therefore, follows that along the vital Pacific Coast over 112,000 potential enemies, of Japanese extraction, are at large today. There are indications that these were organized and ready for concerted action at a favorable opportunity. The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.”
— U.S. Army Gen. John DeWitt, 1942

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Two NorCal Dems vote for Syrian refugee bill

The House approved the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act affecting the process by which the United States accepts refugees fleeing from Syria on a veto-proof 289-137 vote Thursday – and two Northern California Democrats were among those voting for it.

All refugees undergo an 18-to-24-month screening process involving various federal intelligence, law enforcement and diplomatic agencies before being allowed to come to America; Syrian refugees are subject to extra intelligence checks, said Obama administration officials this week.

But H.R. 4038 effectively would suspend admissions of Syrian and Iraqi refugees for now by obliging the heads of the FBI and Homeland Security Department and the director of national intelligence to certify to Congress that each refugee “is not a threat to the security of the United States.”

The entire Bay Area delegation opposed it, but among those voting for it were Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove.

From Garamendi:

John Garamendi“This bill strengthens the already stringent requirements for international refugees entering America. But strengthening the refugee program is a minor part of the reassessment we must make in the wake of the Paris attacks. For those wishing to come to America to do harm, the refugee program is the least likely way to get in and the most likely way to get caught. Of the millions of displaced Syrians, only around 2,200 have been admitted to the United States as refugees, and for a good reason: applicants are vetted through biometric and biographic checks for at least 18 months by every major American national security and law enforcement agency before they even set foot on American soil. Anyone whose identity and story cannot be precisely confirmed is not admitted to our country. Once they gain admission to the United States, their status is periodically reviewed by state and federal law enforcement.

“America must remain the refuge of people who flee from terror, war, hunger and persecution. We should welcome those refugees from Syria and Iraq who seek safety and meet our security requirements. While I strongly support tighter screening requirements for refugee applicants, Congress should focus on much more likely ways for attackers to gain entry to our country. Every single attacker in Paris with a confirmed identity was a citizen of either France or Belgium—countries whose citizens don’t even require a Visa to enter the United States because of our Visa waiver agreement with the European Union.

“We must be vigilant in every respect—refugees, students, and visitors, as well as homegrown terrorists. Remember that each of us has an important role to play. If we see something, we must say something to authorities.”

From Bera:

Ami_Bera_official_photo“It is critical that our first priority is to keep America safe – that is why I voted today for a bill to ensure that all Syrian refugees are thoroughly vetted. However, we can’t let the terrorists win and influence who we are as Americans. Our country has always been a place for those fleeing violence or oppression and we must stay true to those values. This additional screening step will ensure that we know those coming into the country are not a security threat.”

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, was among those who voted against the bill.

Sam Farr“The strength of our nation is found in our willingness to help those most in need. Turning our back on those fleeing terror and destruction would mean turning our back on the values that make this country great. America can stay true to those values without compromising our security.

“We already thoroughly vet anyone seeking refugee status. For most applications, it is a multi-year process that requires a stringent background check. If our security agencies cannot verify any detail of a refugee’s story, they are denied entrance. That is a higher level of security screening than we apply to immigrants and travelers visiting the United States.

“After the recent attacks in Paris, fear is an understandable emotion. However leadership requires us to not give into that fear. Syrian refugees fleeing their war torn country are not our enemy. They are grandparents, mothers, fathers and children who are only searching for safe haven for their family. As a humanitarian nation and the moral leader of the world, we have a responsibility to welcome them into our country.”

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Lifting our lamp beside the golden door

Here’s why America must welcome Syrian refugees with open arms: Because it’s who we are and how we win.

As I strolled, ate, drank and danced my way through New Orleans while on vacation last week, I thought often of people far less fortunate – both in that beautiful but still-troubled city scarred by storm and neglect, and on the other side of the world fleeing a war of great cruelty and horror.

I thought of Hungary, where refugees have been herded into pens at gunpoint – a particularly European deja vu that should make the world shudder.

I thought of Germany, where residents flocked to Munich’s train station to donate food and water and to applaud weary travelers as they disembarked – a scene allowing some small hope that we’re not doomed as a species.

I thought of our nation, where the Obama administration recently announced we’ll take 10,000 refugees next year – a promise that set the professional critic class and the anti-Muslim bigots howling, even though it’s the tiniest fraction of those who’ve been displaced.

The refugees now swamping Europe had no choice but to run away with little more than their babes in arms and the clothes on their backs, leaving homes pocked with bullet holes if not reduced to rubble. They come not with some devious intention of undermining us, or some haughty intention of converting us, but with the simple intention of continuing to draw breath. They come because they have nowhere else to go.

They’re Muslims, but they’re not our enemies. The “godly” agents of chaos they’re fleeing from are our enemies. And we can kill our enemies with kindness.

The refugees are desperate, and we are rich. For a relative pittance, we can welcome them with open arms and restore to them some degree of stability and hope. Even if it costs more than a pittance, it’s both a sacred gift and a sound investment. In giving this gift, we demonstrate that we are not the devils that the wild-eyed gun-toting mullahs say we are. We show that our way – compassion, mercy, friendship, tolerance – is the right way.

They will remember this kindness all their lives, they will teach it to their children. In that way, no matter what tongue they speak in praising God, they will become us.

If you’re Christian, this is the moment to be Christ-like by doing unto others. If you’re Jewish, this is what the Eternal did for you when you went forth from Egypt, and the very essence of tikkun ha-olam. If you’re an atheist, this is how you prove morality can exist without religion. If you’re human, this is what it means to be human.

Some say recent decades have been a clash of cultures, a war of ideas, as fundamentalist Islam wrote its complaint in blood around the world. Surely we’ve learned by now that you can’t shoot your way out of a war of ideas – you must have the better idea, and you must live it. Fortunately, we lucky Americans had that idea a long time ago.

“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-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

It’s time to live it.

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Barbara Lee blasts ‘demagoguing’ on NYPD slayings

Those blaming President Obama, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio or protesters for the shooting deaths of two New York City police officers Saturday are “demagoguing the issues” and doing the nation a disservice, Rep. Barbara Lee said Tuesday.

Barbara Lee (Dec-2010)“As someone who supports nonviolence and gun safety and gun control and peaceful resolutions in Congress, I don’t think there’s any way any of us in the protest movement, in the progressive movement, would condone that” kind of violence, said Lee, D-Oakland, whose own East Bay district has seen clashes between protesters and police in recent weeks.

Everyone should mourn for victims of violence including the slain officers, she said, but protesters should continue calling attention to instances of misconduct.

As with changes that followed the civil rights movement, she said, “it’s not going to come from within, it’s not going to come from (former New York Mayor Rudy) Giuliani and all the powers that be that believe all is well in America. It’s going to come from the people who see the injustice.”

Lee made the comments during a telephone interview in which she laid out her legislative priorities for 2015, which might be summed up as “Back to the Future.”

First and foremost Lee hopes to get Congress to “do our job” and vote on setting parameters for U.S. military involvement in the fight against the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The old, post- 9/11 authorization to use military force – which she famously was the only House member to oppose – should be repealed and replaced with something more focused and timely, she said.

“We all know that ISIS poses a threat and we must address it, but we’ve got to do it in a way that doesn’t create more danger, hostility and anger,” she said.

Asked about a German human-rights group filing war-crime complaints last week against former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney and others based on recent reports about the CIA torture program, Lee replied, “I think the international community should deal with it in the way they see fit. … I’m sure people abroad are saying, ‘Wait a minute, the United States must comply with international law.’”

Lee said she’ll redouble her efforts next year to create “pathways out of poverty” and reduce income inequality, reintroducing bills she has carried in past sessions including a plan to halve U.S. poverty in a decade. She authored similar bills in 2011 and 2013.

“We’ve got to help people into the middle class,” she said. “We’ve got to eliminate poverty in the richest country in the world.”

She said she’ll also work to maintain funding for the nation’s HIV/AIDS programs – “We can’t forget that the global and domestic pandemic is still upon us” – and reintroduce her bill from July to create a tax credit for people who are in-home caregivers for their own family members. “I think I’ll get bipartisan support for that.”

She also expects some help from across the aisle in trying to lift the U.S. embargo against Cuba, now that the Obama administration has announced plans to start normalizing relations. She was returning home from her 21st trip to Cuba when that announcement came last week, part of a group of House members and other delegates who went to study that nation’s public-health system.

“I take people down there, particularly members of Congress, so they can make their own decisions … They should be able to see the realities of Cuba,” Lee said, adding she knows many Republicans will see the wisdom in lifting the 50-year old embargo. “I’ve been working on this since ’77 and never gave up home, so I’m not going to give up hope now.”