Joe Mathews: California should lead the world in accepting refugees

Students prepare to play drums at an after-school music program for refugee students at Howe Avenue Elementary School in Sacramento.
Students prepare to play drums at an after-school music program for refugee students at Howe Avenue Elementary School in Sacramento.

On a Saturday night after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, a plastic replica hand grenade was left in the driveway of Baitus Salaam Mosque near Los Angeles International Airport. Someone spray-painted “Jesus” on the mosque’s front gate and crosses on the windows.

The Ahmadiyya mosque community could have erected new walls or added security. Instead, it held an open house.

“Extremism will not scare us into locking our mosques,” community president Jalaluddin Ahmad said in the invitation. “Rather, we will open the doors wider to educate all.”

If only the rest of California were responding in the same spirit.

So far, Californians – from everyday citizens to top leaders – have shown too much ignorance and cowardice. Since the attack, there has been a surge in vandalism and threats against mosques. We’ve seen officials spread fear by overreacting; the Los Angeles Unified School District closed all its schools because of an implausible threat.

We’re also seeing political opportunists of both parties use the attacks to advance law enforcement agendas, such as weakening the data encryption that protects all of us from hacking, or demanding onerous new requirements for foreign visitors that will hurt California’s tourism industry. And we see some California congressional Democrats joining Republicans in linking the attacks to concerns about Muslim refugees – an especially cruel and thoughtless response during the largest worldwide refugee crisis in decades.

Stop the madness, California. Our state needs a hard U-turn, which starts with recognizing how the attacks connect California to the rest of the world. While we have always been connected by who we are – 27 percent of us are foreign-born – San Bernardino now connects us to people around the world as fellow victims of terrorism.

We all saw the impact of just one attack in one small city of a state of 39 million. Imagine such scenes repeated far more often in Syria. How can we not help refugees fleeing the same terror we’ve experienced?

California, more than any other place in this country, has been defined by its readiness to integrate people escaping horrors – even in the face of official opposition. Gov. Jerry Brown was as wrong in the 1970s to oppose the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees here as President Ronald Reagan was a decade later to oppose taking in refugees from Central American wars.

So why do we allow ourselves to be limited by the federal government’s decision to accept indefensibly low numbers of refugees from Syria (just 10,000 over the next year) and other theaters of American wars?

California, as a global power in its own right, should lead the world in accepting refugees. If Sweden (population 10 million) can take 200,000 this year and Germany (population 80 million) can take 800,000, California should seek to accommodate 500,000 refugees from Syria and other places.

Of course, Washington makes refugee policy a federal matter. But a push by California to fulfill its historical role would change the conversation. Our welcoming stance would distinguish us from the lily-livered cowboys in Texas and 29 other states who are seeking to block the arrival of even tiny numbers of refugees. And if we were permitted to bring in more refugees, they would prove to be economic assets in a state with an aging population and fewer children to support it.

The fact that a pro-refugee movement in California sounds unrealistic shows how far down the road of unreasoning fear we’ve already gone. Let’s turn around and send the very Californian message that the doors here are always open – and that we don’t punish the many for the heinous crimes of the few.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column. He can be contacted at