This week we celebrate Thanksgiving, the national story of how Native Americans welcomed and feasted with newly arrived European refugees. In a few weeks, many Americans will celebrate Christmas, which celebrates the birth of the refugee child, who would become known as Jesus, the son of God.
Yet somehow, we find ourselves mired in a discussion about whether we should even accept, let alone welcome, Syrian refugees. How is this possible?
The answer is in our history. While we proclaim our identity as a nation of immigrants, we also take some time to embrace change. Along the way, we have made terrible mistakes, but in the long run, we do the right things, and become a stronger nation for it.
From the 1800s through the present, many of those already comfortably settled in this country have tried to shut the door on every new wave of immigrants in search of a brighter future. The rhetoric has been remarkably consistent — they speak a strange language and have different customs or religion; they cannot integrate; they pose a particular threat. This was said about every single new group, from Irish Catholics to Russian Jews to Chinese Buddhists.
The new rhetoric, whether it’s aimed at children fleeing violence in Central America or families from the other side of the world, fleeing sectarian violence, is no different.
Specifically, the leadership of the state of Texas has taken the position in both cases that instead of welcoming refugees, we should first treat them with suspicion. Clearly, prudence is warranted. The world can be a dangerous place.
But we’re not having a sober discussion of what we’re doing to welcome immigrants and refugees, or what needs to be modified, and how.
Instead, we have an ongoing pattern where right-wing demagogues won’t even accept young people who may not have been born in the U.S., but who grew up here and are fully acculturated. They, and the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens, are being denied the opportunity to fully and legally contribute to the country. They cannot legally work, or get a driver’s license, largely because of the legal attack Texas has waged against the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA).
It’s been a year since the President tried to implement these programs, following repeated Congressional failure to pass immigration reform, even when there was bipartisan support.
The vast majority of immigrants want two things: economic opportunity, and to flee the violence and terrorism in their home countries. We benefit when Texas and our nation provide this opportunity.
Again, I understand the need for security. I believe there are sincerely-held beliefs that more can be done; however, the extensive vetting process for refugees has been misrepresented or outright lied about, and what’s driving the current discussion is cynical attention to public opinion polls that show an American public feeling insecure about the world and unsure about welcoming strangers to our shores. This is exactly what our enemies want. It is not our strength they hate; it is the freedom that comes from peace.
Now is the time for clear-eyed leadership that holds as the overriding value American optimism about the opportunity we present to those who leave everything behind and make the difficult journey to be here.
With that as our value, and the strength of our nation behind us, we can withstand any blows attempted by our enemies. Yes, they may inflict pain, but they cannot win unless we let them.
migrants aboard passenger ferries from the islands of Lesbos and Chios at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)