[To honor George Washington’s 285th birthday, today: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.” December 2, 1783]
The current president of the United States campaigned on a promise to effect a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Now he is trying to deter some refugees (many fleeing persecution in Central America), and to ban other refugees (many fleeing persecution in the Middle East), from entering the United States.
(“Refugees” are people found to have a “well-founded fear of persecution” on particular grounds, who undergo months or years of background checks before they are allowed to come to the U.S. “Asylees” are people recognized as refugees after having come to the U.S.; they undergo extensive background checks too.)
We don’t know “what is going on” in the president’s imagination. We do know the law and the facts.
The Refugee Act of 1980, 8 U.S.C. § 1101, begins (emphasis added):
The Congress declares that it is the historic policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands, including, where appropriate, . . . aid for necessary transportation and processing, admission to this country of refugees of special humanitarian concerns to the United States, and transitional assistance to refugees in the United States. . . . The objectives of this Act are to provide a permanent and systematic procedure for the admission to this country of refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States, and to provide comprehensive and uniform provisions for the effective resettlement and absorption of those refugees who are admitted.
Our law says foreigners have the right to ask for refuge, outside our country, at the border, or from within. It says we respond. We hear them. We adjudicate. We admit. We resettle. We absorb. And we set aside money to pay for it. That’s the American way!
Let’s keep things in perspective. Eight hundred thousand refugees have been admitted to the United States since the 9/11 attack. Americans killed by refugee terrorists: zero. Depending on how you slice the numbers, American deaths from terror attacks worldwide since 9/11: under 400. American deaths from U.S. gun violence since 9/11: almost 400,000.
The president seeks to ban immigrants, workers, visitors, and refugees from seven countries, regardless of vetting:
(Curiously, he did not single out the home countries of the 9/11 terrorists: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Lebanon.)
You already know that citizens of those seven countries have not committed any terrorist murders in the U.S., and that everyone coming from those countries is carefully screened. “Extreme vetting” has been law and practice for years; it has kept us safe; yet the president insists, without evidence, that it is not enough.
“An example is not a proof.” But here’s our perspective on the people we know from four of those seven “pariah” countries.
Among his hundreds of clients in 34 years of asylum work, Jeffrey has represented victims of persecution from Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia. All exercised their legal right to come to the United States and ask for asylum. While their cases were pending, sometimes after their release from immigration “detention” (jail), refugees from each of these countries were guests of Jeffrey’s family. His home was their home.
There was risk on both sides. The refugees feared that an American lawyer’s hospitality came at a price. (Nope.) Jeffrey and Nancy knew it was possible for these strangers to hurt them and their young children. (The guests would be horrified to know that the thought even crossed Jeffrey’s mind.)
Act or fail to act. Be kind or be cruel. Stand tall or crouch in fear. No matter what one does, or does not, there is risk.
We believe in American exceptionalism. Rich America is big and strong and good enough to welcome the oppressed. A small fraction of refugees will turn out to be bad people, just as a small (but larger) fraction of American babies grow up to be bad. So what? That’s life. We’ll take the risk.
Common sense, based on reality (not posturing), demands that we be prudent. Our laws, and the Bible most of us claim to respect, demand that we be generous.
We insist that the government that speaks in our name, be both.