Nonprofits are now mixed up in the dispute over Syrian refugees. As leaders representing well over half of the 50 U.S. states have announced their opposition to accepting Syrians displaced in their country’s intractable conflict, organizations have begun receiving official requests to desist from settling Syrians. These letters amount to state interference with nonprofits’ operations.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the rhetoric in the United States concerning the asylum of stateless refugees has reached a fever pitch, with political leaders and pundits voicing concerns that some refugees could be affiliated with ISIS – the terrorist organization responsible for the carnage in France. Donald Trump – the current frontrunner in the GOP presidential race – has referred to the acceptance of refugees as a “Trojan Horse” for terrorist cells entering the United States.

The process through which Syrians can gain entry into the United States takes between 18 months and three years, and involves intensive screening from multiple government agencies.

The protest of state governors is largely toothless, as elected officials possess little power to actually bar refugees approved by the federal government from entering the United States. They can, however, make the situation more difficult, redirecting funding from state-level refugee agencies. They can also bully nonprofit organizations working to help the settlement for approved refugees as painless as possible.

Greg Abbott – Governor of Texas and vocal opponent of accepting Syrian refugees – sent letters to nonprofits in his state that work with refugees asking that they refrain from working with Syrians. While the letters contained no actual legal power to stop nonprofits’ work, several groups capitulated to the demands.

Syria’s refugee crisis is a big test for nonprofits, as articulated by Rick Cohen in The Nonprofit Quarterly.

Cohen:

If the U.S. slams the door on desperate Syrian refugees, the nonprofit sector that claims to represent openness, inclusion, and democracy will find its credibility seriously damaged should it fail to do whatever it can to confront the politicians using fear and hatred as a tool for political advancement.

Whether or not nonprofits stand up to state pressure, the current situation by itself taints the United States’ self-avowed openness to accepting deserving immigrants into the nation’s storied cultural melting pot. Passionate nonprofit professionals committed to the social good need to stand up in the face of fear and anti-democratic bullying and pursue their missions with clear eyes and a sense of human decency.

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