I have often been critical of the U.S. government’s policies toward refugees and immigrants, but current policies aren’t just tinkering with a basically sound system. They are an assault on the very essence of who we are as a country. The attacks on core values seem come from all sides: separating children at the border; sending desperate people back to Mexico where their lives are in danger instead of giving them a chance to tell their stories and seek asylum (which is after all, a basic human right); announcing an end to DACA, which leaves 700,000 young people to face the prospect of not being allowed to stay in a country they feel is home; and refugee resettlement numbers slashed to the lowest level ever with no refugees—zero refugees—arriving in the month of October 2019, for the first time in my lifetime. Less visible perhaps but equally devastating in the long term are the multitude of “minor” changes in procedures—from penalizing immigrants who use public assistance to increasing the fees for immigration documents to increased vetting procedures for resettled refugees. Even if there is a change in administration next year, it will take a long, long time to undo many of these changes. And at a time when global leadership and a moral voice is most needed to deal with complicated displacement situations, the U.S. government is mostly absent.
It is true that in spite of the words engraved on the Statue of Liberty—”give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free”—the United States has never had a golden age when all of the world’s tired and poor could find safety and respect within U.S. borders. We have had periods of ferocious anti-immigrant sentiment, and historically immigrants have had to work hard to find their place in our society. But America is different from almost all other countries in the world in that we have been built by immigrants. This is who we are. It was immigrants who settled the great plains and developed the amazingly productive breadbasket of the Midwest; it was immigrants who provided the dynamism for which our great cities are known. Look at the founders of our major tech companies and look at the immigrants who are every day caring for our elderly and landscaping the lawns of our neighborhoods. For all of its flaws, the United States has provided opportunities galore for those willing to work hard.
Twenty years ago, I was living in a European country that had very generous policies toward refugees. At the time, refugees were given three years of full salary to learn the language, their kids had the right to instruction in their own language (our son’s middle school offered over 100 languages to foreign students), and refugees had free comprehensive health care. One day an Iraqi refugee approached me and asked, “How can I get to the United States?” I replied, “You’re crazy. Why would you want to move away from a country with all of these advantages to go to the United States where you’ll immediately have to find a job even though you don’t speak English and will only have a few months to work out a complicated and expensive health care plan?” In a very soft voice, he said, “Because I know that my children will be American.” I still feel a chill when I think of that encounter. There is something very special about the United States where, regardless of your accent or your last name or your father’s occupation, you can be an American with all the rights and privileges of all Americans. As Fiona Hill said in her testimony before Congress, the United States has been a beacon of hope for the world. With today’s assault on our immigration and asylum policies, we’re in danger of losing that which makes us special, that which makes us American.
There are, of course, economic arguments to be made for generous asylum and immigration policies. Study after study shows that refugees are net economic contributors to the United States. In places like Maine, nursing homes are having to close because they can’t find staff and industries such as the Maryland crab industry have suffered from not being able to employ seasonal foreign workers. But for me, the basic reason why we should resettle more refugees, regularize the status of the Dreamers, and give frightened people the chance to make their asylum claims through a fair process is that this is who we are as a people, as a country. These are values worth fighting for.