The high-profile controversy over refugee resettlement has revealed a gap in understanding that threatens to undermine this quintessentially American effort. More disturbingly, it’s starting to pit refugees against the impersonal forces of fear and paranoia. In part, the gap has emerged out of a benign lack of familiarity with the very real people who arrive in our community as refugees; but, sadly, it has been pried wide open by some who seek to divide our people.
The vetting process for incoming refugees — in particular those fleeing the horrible violence in Syria — is probably the most misunderstood aspect of the program, and by far the most fear inducing. But this issue has gained traction precisely because we are suspicious — perhaps inherently so — of the “other,” to the point that we ignore essential humanity. This trait served our distant ancestors well when they roamed the earth in small bands of hunter-gatherers, but maybe — just maybe — it’s time we evolved beyond it.
I have been asked to comment on some of the most commonly encountered misperceptions about refugees in our Idaho.
Who are refugees?
By definition, refugees are people who have faced dire threats to their safety in their former homes. They have known the horrors of persecution and dehumanization and have had no choice but to flee for their lives. Two-thirds of refugees are women and children — the most vulnerable people in the most chaotic and unstable regions of the world. Those who make it to the U.S. are survivors with incredible resilience. Getting to know refugees personally has inspired and transformed the lives of countless Americans. These are the people who stand with refugees in the face of fear-driven opposition.
Where are refugees in the world?
There are 60 million forcibly displaced people living in temporary shelters and asylum situations throughout the world. This is the greatest number since World War II and is equal to one in every 122 human beings on earth. Four-fifths of the world’s refugees are barely surviving in the developing world. The vast majority will never be resettled anywhere. Only one-half of 1 percent will make it to the U.S. each year. Most of the countries providing shelter and relief are extremely poor. The U.S. has a compelling foreign policy interest in protecting refugees through resettlement to encourage countries on the front lines of refugee flows to keep their doors open to asylum seekers and to save lives.
The Department of Homeland Security has been given the critically important task of making sure refugees coming to the U.S. face rigorous screening before their arrival. In fact, refugees are the most scrutinized and vetted travelers to this country, undergoing numerous security checks by intelligence agencies, including biometric tests, medical screenings and in-person interviews with the Department of Homeland Security. This process takes up to two years to complete. The so-called American SAFE Act, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday, would add the requirement that high-ranking intelligence officials “certify” that every single refugee from Syria or Iraq poses absolutely no threat to Americans. Of course, to satisfy public opinion, this “enhancement” still requires widespread trust in the federal government.
Families from Syria (or anywhere else, for that matter) that are seeking a better life embody American values that have guided our country since its founding. They’ve defied all odds to arrive in a safe place and our leaders have the opportunity to reaffirm our American values by responding with compassion. Leaving everything behind and moving to a new place takes courage and resilience — the same values that define us as Americans.
Refugees arrive with a wide range of skills and talents — some with very high levels of education — but all have the ability to contribute to their new communities. Nationwide, research has shown that refugees are important contributors to local economies; for every dollar spent helping refugees start a new life in the U.S., there is a significant economic return to the communities where they live.
▪ For example, a report in Tennessee found that refugees contributed almost twice as much in tax revenues as they consumed in state-funded services in the past two decades.
▪ And in a recent study in Columbus, Ohio, resettlement agencies spent about $6 million a year, but from that investment, the central Ohio community reaps an annual economic benefit of $1.6 billion, including nearly $36 million in spending.
Refugee attitudes toward America
People finding refuge in this country are determined to make a new life with the opportunity afforded them. People given the chance to realize their full potential will feel respected and will gain a sense of belonging to the community that has embraced them. This is human nature. Most refugees become proud American citizens when the time comes for them to naturalize. Keep in mind that Syrian refugees have rejected the ISIS ideology, which is why they’ve had to flee for their lives.
I urge every Idahoan to carefully consider the value that refugees add to our communities and to recognize and respect the essential humanity that binds us all together.
Jan A. Reeves is director of the Idaho Office for Refugees in Boise.