Afterthoughts: Why Does Hawai‘i Want to Shut Out Syrian Refugees?

For such a warm place, Hawai‘i sure likes to give the cold shoulder.
Photo: Katrina Valcourt

It’s easy to think you know the people around you—your friends, family, co-workers. On a good day, Hawai‘i is one of the friendliest places on Earth. But scratch away at that surface impression just a little, and the reality turns out to be a lot more complicated.


Gov. David Ige found that out this past November, after he told reporters that Hawai‘i would welcome any Syrian refugees who showed up on the state’s doorstep.


His announcement was a tad quixotic, since immigration and political asylum are federal matters, not state ones. But it was significant nonetheless, coming at a time when more than two dozen other U.S. governors were taking the opposite stance, vowing to block refugees from their states at any cost.


To have so many doors slammed shut so quickly was a nasty, xenophobic look for the United States, especially in the wake of the attacks in Paris, and so it was a relief to see Ige publicly extend Hawai‘i’s aloha to the Syrian children, women and men on the run from war and strife.


Or at least it was a relief to me. When I logged into my social media feeds the morning of Ige’s announcement, I discovered that my happiness was definitely not universally shared. 


So many people were outraged. So many! And their dissent seemed to mostly boil down to: “There’s not enough room in Hawai‘i for refugees. Sorry, not sorry.”


A post by one of my Instagram friends captures the general tone: “I am not a political person, but, when it comes to the safety of my friends and family, I will let my voice be heard. Hawai‘i has enough issues with our overpopulation. We cannot let Syrian refugees come to our ‘āina. It has nothing to do with race or religion; it has to simply deal with Hawai‘i taking care of Hawai‘i. … Our traffic is already horrendous and the homeless situation is out of control.”


The post went on in that vein, and quickly got a bunch of comments from other people agreeing with him, and going even further.


Reading this and the other, similar sentiments popping up in my feeds, I felt my stomach lurch. It hadn’t occurred to me that so many of the people in my circles would react so defensively, so negatively to what seemed to me a simple expression of compassion. Ige, too, was surprised at the phone calls that flooded his office that day, reportedly more than 500, most of them against accepting refugees. Welcome to Hawai‘i’s complicated side.


I hope we can do better. Because it’s a mistake to argue that we can only focus on one crisis at a time. And it’s an additional mistake to see the issue of Syrian refugees as fundamentally separate from the issue of homelessness, or of disadvantaged Hawaiian communities. These issues are all connected—by the core values we use to respond
to them. 


Here’s the thing. If we aspire to be the kind of place that actually helps Hawaiians in need, that actually helps the homeless get back on their feet, rather than just paying lip service to them, Hawai‘i also needs to be the kind of place that opens its arms to refugees. Because if we turn a blind eye to refugees, that same attitude is going to lead us to ignore the problems in our own backyard. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, about the interrelatedness of all communities, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”


And how short are our memories, anyway? Hawai‘i is generally proud of our diverse ethnic mix, a direct result of immigrants arriving from many lands, so shunning even the idea of this latest group seems especially mean-spirited. As always, “Last Ones In” seems to be our de-facto motto.


Gov. Ige might not have the practical authority to admit or deny entry to refugees, but I’m glad he spoke out to affirm Hawai‘i’s commitment to its best values. Sometimes we need the reminder.