Banning refugees is immoral, un-American and likely lethal

Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera

America is at its greatest when we welcome refugees to our shores, and at its weakest when we shut our doors out of fear.

Since 1975, the United States has vetted and resettled more than 3 million refugees. These former refugees and their children are now our coworkers, classmates and family members. They have achieved their own American Dreams through hard work, education and devotion to the American ideal of “out of many, one nation.”

Refugees have made us stronger economically, culturally and morally. In Texas, which ranks No.1 in the resettlement of refugees, according to the Migration Policy Institute, they have been vital to the state’s economic success and cultural diversity.

By definition, refugees are people and families who face a threat to their safety in their former homes; they are distinctly non-violent. They know personally the horrors of violence and like all Americans, they want to be safe and secure.

The United States was founded by refugees and it has served as a beacon for them and the world for its entire history. Refugees are part of the ethical fabric of our nation, they have always served the country well — and will continue to do so into the future. 

In recent years, about 70 million displaced people in the world have fled their homes due to violence and persecution. Historically, about 1% of these persons have been resettled worldwide each year — with the U.S. serving as a top destination for the most vulnerable refugees who, with volunteer support, rapidly become self-sufficient and taxpayers.

But the U.S. is now failing its obligation to serve as a refugee host country. From 2017 to 2019, the administration cut the refugee resettlement ceiling from 110,000 to a record low of 30,000. At the current pace, the U.S. will not reach even this drastically reduced ceiling for the second year in a row — even though 29,000 refugees have already completed required interviews, a key step in the rigorous resettlement process.

And now, there are news reports that suggest the government is considering a ban on refugees coming to America. Talk of a U.S. ban on refugees comes only a few days after the administration announced that it would seek to end asylum protections for most Central American migrants.

The message is unmistakable: immigrants need not apply here for protection from violence and persecution.

All of us who care for vulnerable children and their parents must vigorously educate the public and our elected leaders to rally against any ban on refugees. We should instead advocate for resettling 95,000 refugees in 2020.

The enormously successful U.S. refugee resettlement program is rooted in long-standing American values of hospitality and compassion — in direct response to the Holocaust — and has received significant bi-partisan support for decades through many presidents of both parties. It has been one of the few programs that has united us. 

Throughout history, our nation has risen to the call, helping resettle tens of thousands of refugees from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s, from Vietnam and Cuba in the 1970s and 1980s, from former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and from Africa and the Middle East today. They became productive, working American citizens contributing and strengthening our society.

Today, that same call is ringing for refugees from Burma/Myanmar, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, among others. Many countries around the world have stepped up to do what is right, to be humanitarians, to demonstrate compassion and empathy, to welcome the stranger, to lead our world by example into a more hopeful future: all of the things that America once proudly stood for.

The program reached its zenith under President Ronald Reagan, who set the bar for most refugees resettled in one year.

Reagan recognized that countless innocent people would die needlessly if the United States did not step in. He also recognized the great economic and strategic advantages the country stood to gain if it provided a lifeline to vulnerable people willing to work and contribute.

This administration’s trend of increasingly limiting opportunities for U.S. entry to those fleeing violence and persecution — both as asylum seekers and, now possibly, as refugees — does not represent who we are as Americans. 

Isolating ourselves from the world does not make us safer; it only isolates us. Our nation does not back down from what is right because of fear. A proposed refugee ban is rooted not in fact, but in fear — and it does not represent the views of the vast majority of the American people.

Refugees need our help, and they need it today. Stand up for our world’s most vulnerable people and reinvigorate the values that make America truly great.

The futures of thousands of families depend on how we respond at this critical moment.

Russell A. Smith

CEO, Refugee Services of Texas