As US turns away refugees, we must take a stand

After World War II, the United States faced a moral crossroads. In 1933, the Roosevelt administration had refused to allow a ship with 900 Jewish refugees to dock at American shores, instead sending it back to Germany. In the same year, Congress ignored a bill that would have admitted an additional 20,000 Jewish children from Germany. Would this country then continue to close its doors to the desperate, or reclaim our position as a moral beacon among nations?

Until recently, we had mostly chosen the latter course. Under U.S. leadership in 1948, the United Nations established that “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Since then, more refugees have found a home in the U.S. than in any other nation.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, however, declared in June that foreign victims of gang and domestic violence will no longer qualify for asylum in the U.S. For the most part, only victims of government-perpetrated violence will be accepted. This change will affect tens of thousands of Central American refugees who are fleeing in unprecedented numbers because their governments fail to protect against rampant organized violence. Sessions’ decision further constrains an asylum system that let in just one in every eleven applicants in 2016. It undermines the reason the system was created in the first place: to protect those with legitimate fears of returning to their countries.

The United States’s immigration courts are indeed overcrowded, but while the number of illegal border crossings decreased during the first few months of Trump’s immigration crackdown, they returned to Obama administration levels by this past December. Coming to the U.S. is often a last resort for refugees, so they will make the trip regardless of how likely they will be deported.

The proper response to the Central American refugee crisis is to bolster the immigration courts, giving each asylum applicant the fair and thorough trial they lawfully deserve. That’s a tall order, but it starts by easing the caseload on immigration judges by appointing more. Sessions recently required that judges handle at least 700 cases a year, which makes it all but impossible to carefully consider evidence for each. Each asylum seeker should also receive legal assistance. About nine out of ten asylum seekers that have no lawyer lose their cases, while nearly half of those with one win, according to the New York Times.

There is a notion that refugees burden the country because they rely too heavily on government benefits. Though that is usually true during their first years in the country, refugee families tend to have strong, long-term upward economic trajectories. According to the New York Times, on average, refugees pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits by their fifth year in the U.S. They have high employment and entrepreneurship rates—13 percent in 2015, compared to 9 percent among U.S. born residents, according to a New American Economy report. This strengthens their new communities and makes refugees a worthwhile investment for our country’s economic health.

Jews have a cultural memory of having been “strangers” or “aliens” ourselves, fleeing from one country to another because of persecution. Much of the fearful, anti-immigrant rhetoric today mirrors what was used against Jews in years past. Jews would not have survived to the present day, though, if other nations had not granted us asylum. As our country neglects refugees,  we must stand for them,  whether through charity, the ballot, or reminding others of our shared moral obligations.


This story was featured in the Volume 36, Issue 1 print edition of The Lion’s Tale, published on Aug. 28, 2018.