The recent violent attacks around the world and here in the U.S. have understandably made Americans afraid. During these extremely trying times, everyone is grappling with the question of how to keep ourselves and our families safe. At the same time, elected officials are considering how and whether to welcome into our communities Syrian refugees who are fleeing this same extremist violence.

As Americans, we want to keep our country safe and we want to have peaceful relations with other countries, but, as ideological differences emerge, we know that there are no easy solutions. The security of our country and its residents is the first thought of any elected official, and as a former lieutenant governor of Minnesota, I have had to grapple with many of the same concerns. Fortunately, there is one proven strategy that can create lasting peace and mutual security between nations: staying true to our long-held national values of inclusion and freedom.

Today, as the executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, I urge lawmakers to support policies that would welcome Syrian (and other global) refugees. The recent tragedies in Paris, Beirut and other cities remind us that we must remain ever-vigilant against threats of violent extremism; however, closing our borders to Syrian refugees simply because they might share the same nationality as some perpetrators of terror, while failing to recognize that the refugees are desperately fleeing violence themselves, only perpetuates fear and isolationism. Syrian refugees, like many of our own ancestors many years ago, need protection and assistance.

Our nation has been a global humanitarian leader and has protected refugees from every part of the world. That is who we are, and although our first instinct may be to isolate ourselves and slam our doors to those in need, we must remember that punishing refugees and gutting a system that already has the most stringent security checks in the world is the very antithesis of our country’s history and values. Instead, we should be welcoming refugees, while working with our partners around the world to find opportunities for their safety, protection and continued education.

History has proved that to become a safer nation, we must know the world better. This requires us to build mutual understanding between our country and others. In this, and in any ideological struggle, we need to have a clear understanding of what is going on around us. We need strong allies and ambassadors to and from other countries, and we need to keep our borders open to those who want to help us fight terrorism. Deciding to turn our backs on refugees or close our borders to all Muslims across the globe, as recent political rhetoric has suggested, would make the U.S. the very country that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) says that we are: isolationist Islamophobic.

Let’s ensure the world knows that America will always be the land of the free and the brave and that it will forever welcome those in need, fleeing violence and oppression. Closing our nation’s doors will only serve to keep us from the needed exchange of ideas that is essential to win this war of ideas. Turning our backs on the world’s refugees means that ISIL wins and America loses.


Marlene M. Johnson is executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators. She was Minnesota lieutenant governor from 1983 to 1991.