Our American traditions affirm the desire to provide refuge to those fleeing tyranny. Our nation was conceived as a land free from political and religious persecution. The Pilgrims fled the raging religious turmoil of 17th century Europe for the safety of American shores. In Wisconsin, German immigrants arrived during the 1840s after they were expelled from their homeland because of their political beliefs. The Hmong, an ethnic group from the hills of Indochina sought refuge in America because they fought on our side during the Vietnam War.
Today we face what Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) calls "the greatest humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II." Our past reveals that we have taken the righteous path and made mistakes. In 1939, fleeing Nazi persecution, 937 mostly Jewish refugees on board a German ocean liner were turned away from the United States. The ship returned to Europe where more than 200 of the passengers were murdered in Nazi death camps. Those who met their end could instead have survived and thrived as taxpaying Americans.
It is now time for states such as Wisconsin to take action. That is why I have introduced a bill in the state Assembly that requires Wisconsin's Department of Children and Families to apply for additional grant funds from the federal government to enable at least 937 additional displaced Syrian refugees to resettle in Wisconsin. The bill already has Republican and Democratic legislative co-sponsors.
If granted, Wisconsin would use these federal funds to assist in handling the initial cost of settling Syrians fleeing terror. Local religious and nonprofit organizations that receive state funds would continue their good work running existing programs to help refugees, their children and families, to resettle, find work and achieve economic and personal self-sufficiency.
Currently, there are 70,000 refugees or former refugees in Wisconsin from all over the world. Close to 95% of them have attained economic self-sufficiency and contribute to our tax base. The majority become U.S. citizens.
This bipartisan bill maintains the safety measures already in place that ensure that admitted refugees do not pose any security or health risks. Refugee applicants are now rigorously screened and vetted by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of State and the Department of Defense. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security conducts interviews with applicants in order to assess suitability before they are allowed to travel to the United States. This bill would do nothing to alter the stringent standards for security and safety we currently have in place.
The bill also makes sure funding is narrowly limited to admitting and helping "refugees," not "economic migrants." Applicants for refugee status must continue to apply through the United Nations, which makes a determination about whether to designate an individual as a "refugee." The U.S. Department of State independently determines if an applicant qualifies for "refugee" status in the eyes of the U.S. government.
Wisconsin can do its fair share by accepting 937 Syrian refugees — a manageable amount. It won't bring an end to the violence in Syria or provide a safe haven for the millions of Syrians who have fled terror. It will, however, help America cooperate with our European partners who will absorb over a million refugees, many of whom are entrepreneurs and middle-class professionals, both Christians and Muslims. Their risky and costly exodus from their homes demonstrates that they choose peace and moderation over violence and extremism.
We should not turn our backs on those who pose no threat to us but seek only to become taxpaying Americans. Wisconsin can be the start of a new life, free from tyranny and fear, where a small number of Syrian refugees can live freely without dreading the horrific violence of their own government and ISIS. The time to act is now.