LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors formally declared that it will welcome Syrian and other refugees fleeing persecution to a “new, peaceful and productive life in Los Angeles County.”
The vote was 3-1 on Tuesday, with Supervisor Michael Antonovich dissenting and Supervisor Don Knabe abstaining.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl recommended sending a letter to President Barack Obama and congressional representatives expressing support of federal efforts to help Syrians fleeing violence and increase the number of refugees to be resettled over the next two years.
Both said the declaration was simply a matter of continuing a longstanding county tradition of not tolerating hate crimes and bigotry.
Their motion noted the board’s commemoration earlier this year of the Armenian genocide and its 2012 revocation of a 1942 resolution that supported the internment of Japanese-Americans.
“We simply chose to push back on every vestige of bigotry that threatens the best of what it means to celebrate democracy,” Ridley-Thomas said.
Antonovich came under heavy criticism for a speech to constituents after the San Bernardino shooting massacre in which he said, “The first thing I asked about this incident, was the guy named Muhammad?”
Antonovich on Tuesday said that he was sympathetic to the plight of refugees, saying his “heart and soul goes out to the people who have been displaced by the Syrian conflict.”
But, he said, the screening process currently in place for refugees doesn’t protect the public.
“We don’t have the vetting process in place … the consequences are too great,” Antonovich stressed, quoting concerns raised by some military and federal intelligence officials.
Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl disagreed.
“Refugees are subject to the strictest form of security screening of any class of traveler to the U.S. before they are allowed to enter, and are subject to extensive background, security and health checks,” their motion states.
Kuehl emphasized the point to her colleagues.
“I have no doubt that the rules will be stringent enough,” Kuehl said. “It’s not for the county of Los Angeles to say, ‘We don’t think you’ve built the walls high enough.”‘
Those who spoke out in support of the declaration included Robin Toma, executive director of the county’s Human Relations Commission.
His mother was forced to relocate to an internment camp for Japanese- Americans during World War II.
“The tragedy in San Bernardino has struck all of us in a very hard way. It raises the level of fear, anger, emotions,” Toma said. “The idea of making policy to discriminate against a group because of the nation they came from, because of their ethnicity, because of their religion, is anathema to our Constitution and to the values of this county.”
Rabbi Jonathan Klein recalled the Holocaust.
“We have people coming from a country that they cannot really return to,” Klein said. “My people in the ’40s, in the famous story of the St. Louis, had boatloads of people leaving Europe and facing horrific conditions and they were turned away. Half of the people on the St. Louis went back to Europe and were killed by Nazis. We were an unwelcoming nation.”