Cokie and Steven Roberts: Welcome the stranger
By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts
President Donald Trump has revised his travel ban on immigrants and refugees and tacitly admitted that three federal courts were correct. The part of his initial order that blocked immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries was unconstitutional, violating principles that protect due process and prohibit religious discrimination.
That’s a small victory for sanity and the authority of the federal judiciary. But another part of Trump’s order has gone largely unnoticed and unrevised: a 120-day ban on all refugees, and a drastic reduction in the total number of refugees admitted to the U.S. annually, from 110,000 to 50,000.
Unfortunately, these rules are not subject to legal challenge, since the president clearly has the authority to set refugee policy. But just because Trump’s order is legal doesn’t make it right. A president who says he wants to “make America great again” is doing exactly the opposite, diminishing our stature and demeaning our values. His policy is misguided for many reasons, starting with morality.
Virtually every faith-based organization in the country has denounced the refugee order. A coalition of 37 Protestant and Orthodox Christian groups issued a statement calling it “unjust and immoral” and saying it undermines “the values we as people of faith hold dear: to welcome the stranger and assist those most in need.”
The obligation to “welcome the stranger” is reinforced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which reports that around the globe, “we are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record.” The U.N. agency counts 21.3 million refugees in the world today, more than half of whom are children under 18. Even if the U.S. accepted 110,000 a year, the impact would be small; 50,000 marks a disastrous retreat from our international obligations.
Trump justifies his policy by arguing that it’s vital to protecting national security, but just about every expert who studies the issues disagrees. Scott Arbeiter, president of World Relief, an evangelical agency that resettles refugees, says: “The actions mandated by this executive order are inconsistent with the security record established by the refugee program since its inception and even since 9/11.”
The White House adds that the policy is necessary to permit “extreme vetting” of refugees. But that already happens. Every applicant for refugee status undergoes a battery of exhaustive tests, and the process can take as long as two years.
The administration also claims that 300 refugees “are currently the subjects of counterterrorism investigations,” but it refuses to give any details or supporting evidence. The Washington Post examined the argument in detail and concluded it was “irresponsible” and “highly misleading.”
For one thing, the Post points out, refugee admissions have averaged about 83,000 a year since 1980. So even if all 300 suspects were admitted in the same year, they would amount to “less than 1 percent” of the total number of refugees admitted.
Put another way: the State Department told the Post last year that since 9/11, “only about a dozen refugees … have been arrested or removed from the U.S. due to terrorism concerns.”
The New America think tank studied the same numbers and concluded: “Far from being foreign infiltrators, the large majority of jihadist terrorists in the United states have been American citizens or legal residents.” Not refugees.
At times, Trump has also made an economic argument against refugees, saying they drain public services and resources. And while economists acknowledge there can be short-term costs associated with resettling refugees, they quickly become an economic asset to any country that accepts them.
A study last year of the European refugee experience concluded, “Welcoming refugees is not only a humanitarian and legal obligation: It is an investment that can yield significant economic dividends.” Ruma Bose of the Tent Foundation, which conducted the study, added: “Policymakers should acknowledge the remarkable talents, energy and dedication of so many fleeing violence and conflict and appreciate them as the workers, taxpayers, entrepreneurs and innovators they will one day become.”
The Wall Street Journal recently visited Erie, Pennsylvania, a town of 100,000, where refugees make up 18 percent of the population, and heard similar arguments. Sterling Technologies, a plastics-molding company, says about a quarter of its workforce are refugees. Company president Cary Quigley, who voted for Trump, told the Journal, “We have been blessed with immigrants who have come, worked and added value to the company.”
Refugees don’t just add value to a company or a community; they add value to the country. From every viewpoint — morality, economy, security — Trump’s order reducing their numbers is dead wrong.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.