The United States was conceived on an idea. Other countries were founded on a common language, religion, or linage. Not us. But, the big idea–every person is free and equal–didn’t get a very strong start. The “free and equal” originally applied only to white men who owned land. Many of us have spent the last 242 years trying to expand the parameters to include as many folks as possible. There have been times when we made great gains, like after the Civil War when black men could finally vote and hold office. Then in 1876 we regressed and started taking that back with the onset of Jim Crow laws. In 1920 women got the nod to gain access to the ballot box, if not completely into Club Free and Equal. Next, 18-year-olds whose age could send them to war, got a seat at the table to participate in those decisions. We’re still a work in progress seeking both political and social equality for everyone. I hope it’ll always be our goal.
One category of people the U.S. has been both hot and cold about welcoming to participate in our experiment in equality is refugees. We started making our invitation to those in need visible in 1886 with the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. It stood as a symbol of freedom from the onset. We made our invite official, in writing, and permanent in 1903 by etching in bronze on Lady Liberty’s base, Emma Lazarus’s poem that gave the imperative, “… Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost (sic) to me …”
Unfortunately, one exception was when some two million refugees came to the United States and were roundly rejected. They were accused of being rapists and bringing crime to our country. They were poor as dirt and disease-ridden. They were accused of stealing American jobs and straining welfare budgets (sound familiar?). Signs in shop windows advertising jobs soon directed, “No Irish need apply.” This migration of refugees started in 1845. People of Irish descent now make up 10% or the U.S. population, and their (our, I claim linage) accomplishments and pride are celebrated instead of being rejected.
Do not confuse refugees with immigrants. Immigrants choose to come looking forward to a better life and opportunity. Refugees come fleeing, looking back, not wanting to leave their homeland, but fearing for their lives. The Irish came because of famine. Today’s refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia are coming because of unimaginable, continuous war and violence. Today, the number of displaced persons worldwide is at an all-time high of 65.5 million people.
The President of the United States has the freedom to unilaterally set refugee number caps each year. Presumably, that number would coincide with the need for placements. President Obama set numbers between 70,000 and 110,000. In 2016, we resettled nearly 97,000. It seems odd then, with demand so high, that Mr. Trump has used his arbitrary power to cut the refugee limit over 50% to 50,000 in 2017, a number we hit in July of that year, and slashed even deeper to 45,000 this year.
Any claims that refugees are terrorists and are out to do us harm aren’t justified, accurate, or historically played out. Refugees are vetted before they are allowed into the country, so wannabe terrorists attempting to take advantage of our policies are identified and denied. There is just no evidence that refugees are violent. In fact, in some cases, the refugees are the very best of people. When China purged in 1958, those in danger were writers, teachers, journalists, and anyone else who stood up and spoke out against an unjust, oppressive government.
There is a lot of conversation about which countries are taking what numbers of refugees. Finger pointing and blame are being spread by the wary toward countries that “should” take more. Ridicule is directed at those who are taking huge numbers, offering as much relief as possible, because skeptics think generous countries are placing their citizens at risk–the same fear happened 170 years ago when the Irish needed help. The scare tactics are simply propaganda to try to persuade U.S. masses to renege on our cast-in-bronze invitation to those fleeing home to save their lives.
Those disparaging conversations have no place in American rhetoric. We are not other countries. Our heritage is founded on sheltering the “homeless and tempest-tosed.”
Our 115-year-old invitation is not dependent on where refugees call home or what their religion, language, or education may be. A desire to save lives and provide a fresh start should be the only criteria.
Mr. Trump’s desire to slash the refugee numbers seems somehow either mean spirited or imagined in unfounded, uninformed fear. The fact that most of those in need today are Muslim seems to fuel this administration’s decisions. We must look back at the famished Irish and educated Chinese in their time of need, and follow those successful paths forward before shying away from admitting a group because they are too poor, don’t speak English, or don’t share a religion familiar to many of us. If we do what is right today, perhaps in a hundred years we will be celebrating the contributions of Muslim Americans like we do every March 17 for patrons of St. Patrick.