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Accept Syrian refugees? State politicians chart a moderate course

Accept Syrian refugees? State politicians chart a moderate course
Women hang wet clothes on a steel drum at a refugee camp on Lesbos island, Greece. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The question of whether Syrian refugees should be allowed entry into the United States spawned a national debate last week reminiscent of the presidential campaign conflagration over illegal immigration. And not just because Donald Trump was a protagonist in both.

Fresh from equating Mexican immigrants with violent criminals and pledging to round up those in the country illegally, Trump seized on the Paris terror assault to take after Muslims. He said the time had come to do things that were "frankly unthinkable" in the past, and then proceeded with details: He agreed with the notion of establishing a mandatory database of Muslims in the U.S. and talked of closing mosques. He reiterated his view that Syrian refugees already here would be sent away.

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He wasn't the only presidential candidate to deliver eye-opening comments: Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson equated mostly-Muslim Syrian refugees to a "rabid dog." Other candidates talked of allowing in Christian refugees, but not Muslims, or of creating a federal agency to spread "Judeo-Christian values."

Their commentary was fierce in part because the fate of the Syrian refugees struck at the confluence of important needs for the Republican presidential candidates: championing evangelical churches, supporting Israel and, most of all, criticizing the nation's immigration system.

The fact that the Paris attacks provided convenient cover for Republicans to talk about immigration was demonstrated by what they didn't talk about. The identified terrorists were citizens of France and Belgium, not Syrian refugees, but there has been little discussion of changes to the visa system under which Europeans enter this country. (The candidates have seized on the discovery of a doctored Syrian passport at one of the terror sites. Its connection to the plot has not been fully determined.)

In an illustration of the moderating influence of demographics, however, many California politicians have been navigating a middle ground, concerned about national security yet openly uncomfortable with blaming refugees or immigrants themselves.

The reality faced by the candidates who are running in next year's elections and beyond is this: Three in 10 Californians were born in a country other than U.S., double the national figure. Add in those whose have a foreign-born parent, and the numbers zoom higher. Those voters have been persistently protective of immigrants, legal or not, and resentful of attacks on them.

To be sure, the refugee issue didn't cleave cleanly on party lines. A Republican measure to sharply curtail the circumstances under which Syrian and Iraqi refugees could enter the country was supported by 47 congressional Democrats — eight of them from California — despite President Obama's vow to veto it. (Almost all of those California Democrats reside in hotly contested districts.)

The desire for a middle ground was evident in interviews with some California candidates for the 2016 U.S. Senate contest.

California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat and the frontrunner, said in an interview that she opposed the GOP measure because it set up an "untenable" system. Beyond the current 18-to-24 month vetting process, it would have required top federal officials to certify that individual refugees pose no threat.

She recalled a heart-rending photo of a drowned Syrian toddler, part of a refugee family torn apart while trying to escape: "We can't allow the images of the tragedy of what happened in Paris to blind us to the image of a 3-year-old child who washed up on a Mediterranean beach."

"There is a drum beating … .that the way to keep us safe is to keep outsiders out. That scares me," she said. "Ask native Americans: We are a country of immigrants."

But, she added, "there's no question that we have to be vigilant."

Republican Rocky Chavez, an Oceanside assemblyman running against Harris, sounded remarkably like her.

"One, security is important, but two, we need to understand we are a country that has always been a home for those who are hungry and tired and oppressed," said Chavez, who said he was not sure, pending more research, how he felt about the House bill. He recalled the internment in the 1940s of Japanese Americans who posed no threat, and of America's earlier reluctance to accept Jews escaping Nazi Germany.

"That didn't set well in history," he said, adding that "a measured approach is often the best approach. We should not take counsel from our fears and we should not take positions that go against our values."

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Another Republican Senate candidate, former state party chief Tom Del Beccaro, was more comfortable with blocking refugees.

"The wise thing would be to upgrade our ability and our intel and if we are satisfied, if we are able to vet people, we could look to resuming it," he said. "We shouldn't move too quickly.... Just like our mothers taught us, safety first."

But he too expressed hope that the discussion of refugees could lead to a refreshed conversation about immigration.

Democrat Loretta Sanchez, an Orange County congresswoman running for Senate, voted against the House refugee measure. In brief remarks before the Thursday vote, she indicated she was influenced by the history of her California district, heavy with refugees from Vietnam and neighboring countries. In an echo of today's circumstances, their arrival more than a generation ago was opposed by some.

"We are ready to help resettle these refugees," she said, noting that most are women, children and the elderly.

"Refugees are not the enemy. Remember the words on the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Twitter: @cathleendecker

For more on politics, go to www.latimes.com/decker and www.latimes.com/politics.

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