This ‘City Upon a Hill’ can address refugee crisis, stay secure

Numerous people have posted pictures on Facebook this week showing a reenactment of the first Thanksgiving. They point out the Wampanoag Indians shared their harvest when the Puritans’ stores ran low. From this, they draw an analogy to today’s refugees seeking safety.

It is a fair comparison. Some Republican presidential contenders have gone overboard, straying from our party’s history of support for legal immigration. President Reagan enriched the imagery of America as the City on a Hill, with doors open to “anyone with the will and heart to get here.” The late Fred Thompson — the most clear-headed candidate of the 2008 GOP field — spoke of a nation with “high fences and wide gates.”

Now, we have Gov. Chris Christie stating he would not accept young orphan refugees. Other candidates have made similar remarks. Their supporters reflexively point out Democrats once encouraged the deportation of a young refugee: Elian Gonzalez. The GOP supported those who fled totalitarian regimes in search of freedom, leading many Republicans to oppose the child’s return to Cuba.

Janet Reno and other Democrats were wrong back in 2000, while candidates today are overstating the dangers presented by refugees. The hype has led to an overreaction from those on the left. President Obama resorts to insults while defending his course of action, denigrating Republicans as scared of “widows and orphans.” This from someone who infamously called ISIS a “JV squad.”

This heated rhetoric on both sides has overshadowed the reasonable concerns of Republicans like Gov. Paul LePage and Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Democrats like Sens. Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein. Our intelligence in Syria is severely limited; the ongoing war has exiled our diplomatic mission, while we have not put a significant military presence on the ground.

A family of refugees walk towards Macedonia near the Greek village of Idomeni on Nov. 23. Yannis Behrakis | Reuters

A family of refugees walk towards Macedonia near the Greek village of Idomeni on Nov. 23. Yannis Behrakis | Reuters

The concern about the refugee screening process isn’t whether it is rigorous enough; it is the lack of information. All the rigor and background checks are for naught if you do not have information to query against. And while Sen. Angus King has pointed out we have other security challenges, like visa waiver programs, and others have expressed concern about our porous borders, we can be concerned about more than one thing at a time.

The fact is Americans can be generous to those who seek a better life, both by supporting them as refugees and helping defeat the evil that has metastasized in their homeland. But while being generous, we can simultaneously have valid concerns about our security and those entering our lands. After all, Squanto helped vouch for the Pilgrims — would the Wampanoag have participated in the first Thanksgiving without such information?

Meanwhile, although the Thanksgiving dinner table political debates are behind us, the chaos of Black Friday and the shopping season is here. It is coupled with new commercials from Sen. Bernie Sanders, warning Americans about dangers of income inequality. Juxtaposing Black Friday footage — with its attendant orgy of consumerism — with Bernie’s message is, at the very least, stark.

And it highlights the paradox of progress. We talk about inequality and poverty, but 50 percent of the lowest-income Americans have phones more powerful than multi-million dollar government computers used just a few decades ago. With internet service, they have access to more information than the entirety of the Library of Congress. If those Americans went back to the 60s with their phones, they would be thorough One Percenters.

The simple fact is the vast majority of Americans are materially better off than their parents were at the same age in real terms — the Rockefellers couldn’t have bought an iPhone in 1960, despite their vast wealth. But even with material advancement, inequality resonates as a concern because of what it means to live today. Internet access, higher education, and phones are now necessities, while they were optional for the majority of many Mainers’ lives. But for those refugees sincerely seeking peace, those things almost certainly remain optional today.

At this time of year, it behooves us to remember a few things. America is at her best when we are united, not divided by race, income, religion, or party. Even with challenges around economic growth, our material prosperity far exceeds what many in the world will ever know. Some of those material things are important, but with food, water, shelter, and safety, we are in possession of the true necessities that others can often only seek. And, although there are those who want nothing less than the destruction of our way of life, we can find a way to address the refugee crisis while maintaining our security. That is what we have to do if we want to remain the City on a Hill.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.