America's Failed Policy on Refugees

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Found at the base of the Statue of Liberty, this quote portrays the United States as a place of refuge for those facing hardship, and paints the acceptance of immigrants and refugees as something that is at the core of being American. Past and current policies aimed at refugees, however, severely contradict these powerful words. In recent years, the United States has failed to use its immense wealth and power to help manage refugee crises in regions such as Central America and the Middle East. Despite objections from President Trump and members of his party, the United States has an ethical obligation to assist and accept these refugees and would reap economic rewards by significantly increasing the refugee admissions ceiling.

In formulating refugee policy, the moral or ethical argument to help refugees is sufficient for justifying the expansion of both assistance and acceptance programs. In the case of the United States, one moral argument revolves around the fact that much of the refugee-producing destabilization in the Middle East and Central America is the direct or indirect result of American foreign policy. For one, the United States has intervened militarily in Central American countries on over fifty six occasions since the 1890’s. Such perennial intervention, which has taken many different forms, has been described as “a major destabilizing factor” within the region (Origins of Crisis in Central America). Just as impactful were the actions of the United Fruit Company or la frutera; for instance, the company cooperated with the U.S. government to remove democratically-elected leaders such as Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz, who had attempted to reduce the influence of the exploitative corporation. Regarding the Middle East, the United States has similarly exacerbated existing instability through military intervention. Countries in which the United States has intervened such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, for instance, are currently mired in civil strife. This general destabilization has spread to places like Syria, which is now one of the greatest sources of refugees in the world, along with the aforementioned countries.

While I would not argue that the United States holds the entirety of the blame for the refugee-producing destabilization of Central America and the Middle East, it has undoubtedly played a considerable role. In light of this, the U.S. has a moral responsibility to help ensure the human rights of these regions’ peoples are being upheld. It is the least the U.S. can do to help the peoples that have been directly or indirectly harmed in the past. In addition, by ratifying the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, the U.S. has affirmed its support for an “international refugee regime” that is maintained through interstate cooperation. Our recent inaction regarding refugee crises clearly contradicts the basic foundation of the Protocol, and thus reflects a moral and ethical failure. This is especially true given our vast potential as the world’s richest country to provide humanitarian aid and take in displaced peoples. In fact, Western states take in less than 1% of displaced peoples, indicating that countries like the U.S. are more than willing to hand over the burden of refugee-intake to poorer countries. If the U.S. has concluded that it is immoral to tax the poor at a higher rate, the country should also believe that it is immoral to leave poorer nations to “bear the brunt of hosting refugee populations.”

While ethics alone should compel the U.S. to increase both assistance and acceptance of refugees, the economic argument regarding the latter might be more convincing to some. For starters, refugees could help many areas of the country that are experiencing significant aging and population decline. These phenomena are problematic because they lead to job shortages, a dearth of funds for entitlements such as Social Security, and less possibility for economic growth. An influx of refugees, who are generally younger than the population average, would immediately help to mitigate these problems. By lowering the average age, incoming refugees would help to decrease the dependency ratio, which in turn would reduce the need to increase taxes to help pay for entitlements. Furthermore, refugee communities in the past have proven to be resilient in revitalizing not just dilapidated neighborhoods, but the fortunes of entire cities. In the city of St. Louis, for example, Bosnian refugees are “credited with bolstering sagging school enrollment, invigorating the city center, revitalizing neighborhoods, and stabilizing the city’s decline.” Utica, NY, which was previously experiencing industrial decline like much of the Rust Belt, has found a new “sense of vitality” due to a large influx of refugees from places like Somalia and Vietnam. By setting up businesses and buying/renovating homes, these refugees have turned things around for the entire city. Examples like these show that President Trump’s proposal to curtail the intake of refugees go directly against the immediate interests of many of those who voted for him. Places like upstate New York and Missouri voted solidly for Trump, but should realize that fewer incoming refugees will reduce the potential for economic stability and growth, despite their President’s rhetoric.

One frequent objection to taking in refugees is that they will bring increased levels of crime to the United States. Despite the pervasiveness of this argument in the media, these assertions are simply not backed by empirical data. For one, a 2009 report determined that “incarceration rates among young men are lowest for immigrants” and that this particularly true for those from Central American countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala. In fact, the report also found that as the population of immigrants living in the U.S. has boomed in recent decades, “rates of violent crimes and property crimes… have decreased significantly, in some cases to historic lows.” While this latter finding does not imply causation, there is little to suggest that the decrease in crime levels might have been impaired by increased immigration. Furthermore, within Germany, which has taken in nearly one million refugees in recent years, data have shown that migrants (which encapsulates refugee populations) commit crimes at either similar or lower rates than native-born Germans. Politicians might attempt to paint refugees as inherently criminal or dangerous, but reality seems to disagree. These facts render many of Trump’s proposals, such as the creation of a database listing all crimes committed by undocumented people, as erroneous, xenophobic attempts at instilling fear among Americans when fear is unwarranted. Such proposals do not just constitute a mismanagement of funds, but work to further a nefarious anti-immigrant narrative.

The argument that accepting refugees will increase terrorism similarly lacks a factual basis. It is frequently said, for one, that our vetting process is very weak and allows for terrorists to “slip through the cracks.” While improvement of the refugee-vetting process might be worth undertaking, it is important to know that refugees are already screened and approved through an arduous, multi-layered process that can take up to two years. While waiting in extremely dangerous locations, individuals applying for refugee status are currently required to provide a multitude of documents and information, which are then used to ensure they are not connected with terrorist organizations (a detailed breakdown of the process can be found here). It is also important to note that refugees are statistically “less likely to engage or attempt to engage in domestic terrorism than ordinary citizens”. Clearly, this fact nullifies the notion that refugees pose a disproportionately large threat to Americans’ safety. After all, when anyone enters the U.S. there is some risk involved (anyone has the potential to become a criminal or terrorist) but in the case of refugees the risk is no greater than normal.

To conclude, it is imperative that the United States do more to assist refugees and increase its acceptance quota. While such action will certainly help to improve the economic fortunes of everyday Americans, it is most importantly the appropriate moral response. In addition, we must think of the United States’ global reputation when deciding how to respond to the world’s refugee crises. How is our credibility affected if we hold others to high standards that we ourselves do not uphold? Should our superpower-status be defined by our military prowess, or compassion and a firm commitment to upholding human rights? These are questions that we must ask our current leaders, who seem to have no desire to do anything substantial regarding the plight of millions of refugees. This is our responsibility not just as Americans, as the Statue of Liberty tells us, but as humans.