The Refugee Crisis and America: Distinguishing Immigration, Security, & Compassion

By Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, J.D.
Founder/President, G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice

I am an immigrant. And I am the daughter of two immigrants. My father first immigrated to the U.S. from India, my family then immigrated from India to Canada, and later we all immigrated from Canada to the U.S. We are American citizens and we have come about that status legally, freely, and through a long and effective process. However, we were not refugees.

In addition, my husband was a military aviator, so we are part of the broader military family. He served in the post-9/11 era when the efforts against terrorism were at their height. He and his fellow service people know first-hand just how serious the threat of terrorism and other security concerns are. But even during their service at that time, the military was not facing the current two front battle against terrorism and the global refugee crisis.

Immigration is a complex issue no matter who is in office. There are multiple categories of immigration and immigrants. A myriad of opportunities, needs, challenges, and risks are associated with immigration. But refugees are distinct from other categories of people who come to this country, and present particularly complicated concerns that interrelate with immigration, security, and compassion.

Those concerns have come to the forefront with the Trump administration’s decision to ban people from 7 countries (including Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) from entering the U.S. for a period of 90-128 days. That includes approximately 218 million people in those countries. Supporters have argued that this ban helps curb potential threats to the U.S., and detractors have raised human rights and humanitarian concerns of turning away refugees and people of various religious or ethnic groups. The concerns and the recent decision warrant some analysis.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the most widely accepted international human rights instrument, outlines broadly the rights of all people in a range of areas. Specifically in Article 13, it states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state…[and] [e]veryone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” In addition, Article 14 states “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution…[and] [t]his right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions generation arising from nonpolitical crimes or acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.” Although the UDHR is not a treaty binding on all countries, it has been so accepted internationally that it has been established as a norm.

However, an equally accepted norm that is codified in various international treaties and laws is the right of each country to maintain its sovereignty and to protect their own people. Individual countries have the right and responsibility to set their own immigration policies. But the status of a refugee creates some considerations that weigh differently on immigration policies.

A refugee has a specific definition different than immigrants. A refugee is not just any one who enters this country, legally or illegally. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees, the international agency tasked with the role of addressing global refugee issues, defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” They also note that a refugee “most likely… cannot return home or afraid to do so.”

But a refugee takes a slightly different status when they become an asylum seeker. If a refugee flees their country and seeks sanctuary in another country, they can do so by applying for asylum. Asylum grants the right to be recognized as refugee and be given related legal protections and other assistance within another country. Each asylum seeker must demonstrate to the country where they are seeking asylum that they have a well-founded fear of persecution from their home country.

Currently there are 65.3 million forcibly displace people – these are not refugees but people who have had to leave their homes, regions, countries for various reasons. But 21.3 million people are considered refugees. [See also the UNCHR charts below] The Syrian War has added to these numbers in staggering ways – with over 4 million people fleeing Syria since 2011. Most fled to Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq but many have also fled to Europe the U.S. and other regions.

In this current global refugee crisis, many images on social media show the faces of children – but the refugee populations consist of men, women, and children. The children are disproportionately affected by the crisis because they are so vulnerable, but large numbers of refugees include men and women who would otherwise be productive members within their countries but have been forced to flee. Families are being separated and individuals of every age and status are dying. The overwhelming majority would otherwise not be leaving their countries had it not been for the conditions of persecution they face. The idea behind refugee status is to give a safe haven for any one from any country who is fleeing persecution in various forms. The U.S. has admitted refugees from many countries and for many years. But we have admitted a far higher number of non-refugees over the years than refugees presently. The question of whether to admit a refugee was not really a concern for the U.S. in recent times. But concerns were shaped by two sets of major current events – global terrorist attacks and the Syrian refugee crisis. The global refugee situation coupled with the Syrian War has created the largest refugee crisis since WWII. That fact alone makes this situation not only distinctive but acutely important and immediate for every country. And the fact that many countries, particularly in Europe, have faced the challenges of refugee repopulation in their regions, also demonstrates the difficulty of the crisis and related policies and processes.

When the U.S. faced 9/11, a number of the terrorists had immigrated to the U.S. and prepared for this massive attack over a number of years. In more recent attacks in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East among other areas, terrorist were either present in the country already or entered under various guises. In smaller numbers, there have been some terrorists who have come out of a refugee community or status.Identifying who is a terrorist within an immigrant population or a refugee population is extremely difficult and
also difficult to say that the risks are higher with one or the other since we have seen challenges on both areas.

The issue of terrorism is a very real threat to the U.S. and other, particularly Western, countries. The reality is that while we can make great strides in preventing many terrorist attacks, we cannot fully protect against every terrorist attack. Closing our borders to immigrants or refugees does not fully protect us from terrorisms since most terrorist attacks are not immediate and almost anyone in our country can plot and plan for an extended period of time. And while terrorists will certainly abuse our policies toward immigrants and refugees, the damage to the lives and livelihoods of refugees may outweigh the threats of terrorism. But we should remind ourselves, even one terrorist can cause a wide scale death and destruction.

While bans can raise a host of human rights, humanitarian, and constitutional concerns, they have been used in various instances in the U.S. based on security concerns and not only in the context of terrorism. For example, President Franklin Roosevelt infamously did not admit Jewish refugees during WWII. In 1950, Congress passed legislation to ban Communists entry (despite President Truman’s veto). President Carter in 1980 banned Iranians from entering the country and instituted other sanctions in light of the hostage crisis. In 1987, President Reagan banned HIV positive persons from arriving in the U.S. And, President Obama in 2011 issued a six month ban against entrance from people in Iraq. In hindsight some or all of these bans were questionable or unjust, but they were instituted in contexts of high security threats. So in light of our history and our present, how do we evaluate the current ban? And more importantly, what does the U.S. do now as we face a” two front battle” not just in terms of security but from a human rights standpoint related to the refugee crisis? The calls for security are real and necessary, but the calls for compassion are high and immediate. Based on this difficult situation, we need to take an approach not only toward the current ban but toward our present global refugee situation that weighs a range of factors and pursues a range of actions:

1) We must shift from an attitude of hysteria to one of service. In every crisis of every kind, we can’t resolve and help the situation when we are emotionally overcharged. In a crisis we need clear heads and available hands.

2) We must pray. There are some who see that as a religious platitude. But I will remind everyone that we are in a spiritual as well as physical battle. Prayer has been essential for every battle ground our country has ever faced.

3) We must educate ourselves. Learn the facts through the UNHCR, advocacy groups like Advocates for Human Rights or World Relief, and from other reputable governmental and non-governmental sources. Don’t rely on social media or even media exclusively to inform you of the issues or the facts.

4) Consider how Europe and other regions have handled the refugee crisis. What worked, what didn’t, and why not?

5) Consider the significance of security and the risk of terrorism specifically. What percentages of those among the refugee community have actually been engaged in terrorist activity in other areas? What is the likelihood that we would have a serious terrorist threat among refugees admitted here?

6) Consider the primary sources of terrorists/terrorism worldwide. Given that the Trump administration has exempted several of the major Muslim countries from this entrance ban, we need to realize that the current ban is not against Muslims or Middle Eastern countries but against those that pose a higher potential threat. However, the ban can have a disproportionate impact on people of specific religious or ethnic backgrounds and thus should be evaluated. We must also evaluate whether those that have been exempted are being exempted for legitimate reasons.

7) Consider U.S. immigration resources. Do we have the staffing, policies, and procedures in place to review and admit refugees in significantly larger numbers? We already have considerable vetting processes, but do we have the means of implementing that process on such a scale and with such immediate needs?

8) What resources are in our communities to be able to care for the immediate needs of refugees? Simply admitting a refugee is not the end of the story nor the end of the need for compassion. Refugees come to this country with nothing. They have no food, no housing, no money, no work, sometimes no education, and may not speak English. If we admit refugees on this scale without a plan, and especially if we house them in detention like circumstances, we are creating extended destitution in our country among people who have already suffered oppression in their own countries. Relying on the input of organizations that provide this type of refugee relief is important, but also important is supporting community organizations that will need to serve in this context.

9) Once a refugee is granted asylum, we must also consider whether they intend to remain in the U.S. or whether they hope to return to their country or another country at a future time. This may impact not only their status but ours as a country.

All the above is just a start in considering the issues. While we can’t know everything, we can understand that there is much more to this issue than a partisan or personal perspective. We all need to use our minds and our hearts in a way that considers the complex issues, comes up with solutions, understands that nothing will be perfect or quick, and to stop attacking each other on religious or partisan lines. We have work to do to help people who are suffering. And we need to do that work now. This is a human tragedy of the highest order.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice. We are a faith-based, nonpartisan organization that seeks to extend the conversation about justice with a posture of dignity and respect.