WASHINGTON – In the spring of 1939, the crew of the ocean liner St. Louis was desperately looking for a place to dock. The ship was carrying 908 Jewish refugees from Germany and had intended to land in Cuba. But the Cuban government refused to allow the refugees on the island, and the ship was forced to turn back. The liner’s captain tried to negotiate a docking in the United States or Canada, but both countries rebuffed the request and the St. Louis returned to Europe.
An estimated 254 passengers on the ship were killed in the Holocaust, and this failure is what has motivated the country in the decades since, said Canada Institute Director Laura Dawson.
She testified Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. With the United States planning to settle 10,000 Syrian refugees before the end of the fiscal year, the committee asked witnesses about how Canada has handled the refugees and what the two neighboring countries could do to ensure their citizens’ safety.
After World War II, Canada accepted more than 250,000 refugees. In the 1970s, more than 50,000 Vietnamese fled to Canada following the end of the Vietnam War. Last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of February
“This was the crown jewel of his election platform,” said former Canadian immigration officer Guidy Mamann.
The committee was most interested in Canada’s sponsorship program, in which Canadian citizens help to integrate refugees into the community.
“Sponsors have to be fully vetted by the government … and be able to make a financial commitment of about $25,000,” Dawson said. “We’ve seen groups come together through churches, or social media, to help out.”
One demographic in particular that has stepped up is Vietnamese Canadians, many of whom were beneficiaries of the same sponsorship program decades ago.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said putting refugees in schools and involving them in the community would be “the best guard against radicalism.”
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the committee chair, agreed. “That does make an awful lot of sense,” he said.
But the committee was also concerned about how closely the refugees were being vetted. Canada is admitting refugees only from “low risk groups” such as families with children and single women. But the witnesses all agreed it was difficult to verify the ages and marital status of the refugees, especially when the process is compounded by political pressure to bring in thousands of Syrians.
“When there are so many people who are so rushed … things can happen,” said David Harris, a lawyer and former contractor with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
With the possibility that a Syrian with violent intentions slips into Canada, the committee considered how that person could be prevented from entering the United States.
The consensus of the committee and lone American witness Dean Mandel was that it would not be easy. Mandel is a Border Patrol agent based in Buffalo, N.Y. Because of the amicable relationship between the United States and Canada, the Border Patrol has far fewer resources for the longer northern border than it does for the southern one.
“There are approximately as many Capitol Police on duty right now protecting the Capitol complex as we have on the entire 4,000 mile Northern Border,” Mandel said. That doesn’t include the Canadian border with Alaska.
His request for help was supported by Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who introduced a bill over the summer to examine the best way to improve security on remote stretches of the border.
But for all the talk of relocation and its potential problems, Mamann said that most refugees want to stay in the Middle East. Only 6 percent wanted to relocate to Canada, he said.
And some of the witnesses wondered if the massive cost of relocation — Canada plans to spend $1.2 billion processing 50,000 refugees — could be better spent. That’s the equivalent of $880 million U.S. dollars.
“For what it costs to resettle one Middle Eastern refugee in the United States for five years, about 12 refugees could be helped in the Middle East for five years,” Harris said, quoting a study from the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.
Like the countries they represented, the senators and witnesses had a friendly dialogue, and there seemed to be bipartisan agreement on the committee that the United States had a role to play helping refugees.
“We invaded Iraq about 15 years ago, looking for weapons of mass destruction,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. “The result of that has been, quite frankly, a Middle East that is a mess. These refugees don’t have any homes. They’ve been destroyed.”
“We have an obligation to figure out how to do this and do this right for the safety of this country,” he said. “But we cannot ignore it, because if we do we aren’t doing anybody any favors.”
Reach reporter Luke Torrance at email@example.com or 202-408-1494. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
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