This year the United States will take in 85,000 of the world’s most vulnerable so they can begin new lives in America, the highest number since 2001. But at a time when 65 million people have been displaced by violence, and 20 million of them are classified as refugees — more than half of them children — it is not enough.
Recently, the Obama administration took a small step forward, raising the number of refugees the country will let in to 110,000 for the next fiscal year. The next step is for Congress to allocate resources for resettlement — something it has always done, in a bipartisan fashion, since the refugee crisis after World War II.
Unfortunately, this time, a vocal minority in Congress, the states and the public are arguing that we should respond to this humanitarian crisis by pulling up the welcome mat, even for families fleeing the civil war in Syria and the brutality of the Islamic State. Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, called the administration’s increase “reckless and extreme.”
Fear of refugees is not new. In 1939, the United States turned away more than 900 Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany because of worries that some might be Nazi conspirators or Communists. More than a quarter of those refugees died in the Holocaust.
Some say we should be as fearful of refugees today, especially in an era of terrorist attacks. Yet since 2001, more than 800,000 refugees have been resettled in the United States, and none have been convicted of an act of domestic terrorism. Compassion and security can coexist.
My organization, World Relief, has settled more than a quarter of a million refugees in this country over the past 40 years, working with thousands of congregations to welcome others who have no place to call home, creating a place not just to live, but a place to belong. We’re an evangelical charity, and our motivations for this work come from what we believe about Jesus, who was himself a refugee who fled with his mother and father to Egypt, and told us to “do for others as we would want done for us.”
We are joined in this work by many other agencies, religious and secular. They act out of their own traditions and conviction, but all see the need to take bold action to end human suffering.
My group’s resettlement efforts began in 1979, when a couple who had returned from two decades of ministry in Vietnam searched for a local church to welcome a refugee family. Over the next decade, the federal government, resettlement agencies and thousands of local churches resettled more than 700,000 refugees from Asia, most from Vietnam. Today, Vietnamese-Americans are a resounding success story: Compared with the country as a whole, they are more likely to be employed and less likely to live in poverty, and they earn slightly higher wages.
Some have argued that countries in the Middle East accept too few refugees, and should take more. But two of Syria’s neighbors, Jordan and Lebanon, host more refugees per capita than any European country.
Even comparing the United States with other Western countries, our contributions are modest. Canada resettled more than double the number of Syrian refugees America received, even though their population is roughly a tenth of the United States population. The United States takes in less than half of 1 percent of the world’s refugees.
Refugee resettlement has always received bipartisan support because the quest for freedom and safety embodied in refugees’ stories represents the values that make America great, and because our national security is actually strengthened when we respond with wisdom and compassion. Jihadists hate our compassion for refugees, because it disproves the claims about Americans they use to sow hatred and violence. Acting according to the best angels of our nature may produce our greatest long-term strength and security.
The president has called for greater commitments from all nations, and this higher quota is meant to lead by example. Congress must now do its part. It can offer — and I pray will offer — a response that combines the best of our wisdom, compassion and courage. Organizations like mine stand ready to work with our political leaders to keep the welcome mat out.
Virtually every day, in quiet corners of airports across the country, refugees are being welcomed and cared for by teams from churches and community groups. It is in scenes like these, unseen by most, where we recapture the spirit of which we as American citizens have been justifiably proud for most of our nation’s history.
This is our new Ellis Island. It is the expression of our faith and our humanity, and it is a worthy response to the legacy we have inherited.
Read more at America’s Duty to Take In Refugees.