As I'm writing this, President Obama is giving a speech at the beginning of a special summit on the world-wide refugee crisis in advance of the United Nations General Assembly. He will reportedly "vow to welcome 110,000 [refugees] into the United States next year, a 30 percent increase from 2016."
Is this an act of bravery on Obama's part? An act of compassion?
According to Donald Trump Jr., it is an act of foolishness equivalent to gobbling up a bowl of Skittles when you know full well that there are three poisonous ones in the mix. The Post did a fantastic job debunking that analogy. I'm still thinking of the Olympic-sized swimming pool (and a half!) filled with Skittles. But the fear of refugees remains a powerful theme in American life and American politics right now.
Advocates for refugees have worked to counter balance all that fear with calls for compassion. The Post quotes Chris Boian, the spokesman for the U.N.'s refugee agency saying, "People around the world are frightened by things they see happen, acts by extremists, but it's very important to understand refugees are not the perpetrators of this kind of violence. They're fleeing that same violence." Are you scared of ISIS? So are millions of people living in Syria. What would you do if you were in their shoes? How would you want other countries to respond?
These are powerful questions, especially for families like ours whose ancestors came to the United States as refugees from state-sanctioned violence and war. But these questions ignore the role the United States has played in the creation of the refugee crisis. This is a complex question when it comes to Syria--there is more than enough blame to go around for the on-going crisis in that country as Ban Ki-moon noted this morning. But the question of responsibility is much less complex when it comes to refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan.
This was the part of the presentation the staff from Lutheran Social Services made at our church last Thursday that caught me by surprise. Mira Mendick mentioned almost in passing that of the 1,200 refugees their agency settled in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. this year, the majority entered the country with a "Special Immigrant Visa", the program to resettle Iraqi and Afghani men and women who worked for the U.S. military as translators or in other capacities. These people risked their lives for the United States and are now unable to live safely in their own countries. But the SIV applicants are screened and vetted right along with everyone else trying to enter this country, and the process can be painfully slow. Even now, in 2016, we are resettling these people in our country.
In all of the news and commentary about refugees trying to enter the U.S. over the past year or so, I have not heard anything about the SIV program. In fact, prior to our meeting last Thursday, I had a conversation with members of another church about the difference between the current refugee crisis and the situation of the "boat people" who fled Vietnam in the late 1970's. Why, someone wondered, was there such a massive, compassionate response to the needs of these people? The Kittamaqundi Community sponsored a refugee family from Vietnam in the early 80's (a story I just learned last year) and a number of other congregations in Howard County did the same thing. Why isn't there the same out-pouring of care for today's refugees?
I thought I had an answer. Americans felt a sense of responsibility towards Vietnamese refugees because of the Vietnam war. We felt like we had let these people down, abandoned them to our enemies. We knew that many of these people had assisted Americans. Others, such as the family my church in St. Paul, Minnesota sponsored, included children fathered by American GIs. But we have no such sense of responsibility now. Accepting refugees is no longer a matter of stepping up to fulfill our obligations. Now it is just a matter of being kind. And the call to "do the right thing" is hard to hear when you're afraid.
But I was wrong. At least when it comes to the majority of refugees resettled by Lutheran Social Services in our area this year, we were fulfilling a responsibility. We created these refugees. They assisted the United States' military efforts in their countries and their lives were endangered as a consequence. The suggestion that such people are akin to poisonous candy seems not only baseless but cruel.