Why America Needs to Extend a Hand to Mideast Refugees

Refugees fleeing from Mosul, Iraq, head to the self-ruled northern Kurdish region in Irbil on June 12 Photograph by AP Photo

The world is a mess, isn’t it? Everywhere you look, it seems another crisis is brewing. Violence in the Middle East is rampant, most appallingly in Syria but also in Iraq as the militant Sunni group ISIS is bent on conquering the whole country. Boko Haram terrorist fighters horrified the world by kidnapping 272 girls in Nigeria two months ago: The group’s killing and abduction spree has continued unabated. Russia has annexed Crimea, and ethnic Russian separatists are violently maneuvering for greater autonomy in southeast Ukraine. Tensions between Japan and China in the East China Sea are mounting.

The bloodshed in the world’s hot spots, coupled with the nerve-racking prospect for regional territorial disputes spiraling into armed conflict, is deeply troubling. The public policy question is, how should the American government respond? American hawks are scathing in their criticisms of President Obama, castigating him for following a foreign policy of speaking loudly while refusing to carry a big stick. Yet for all their histrionics, the critics fall far short on solutions. Military intervention would not garner wide support. The White House positions itself as pursuing a rational yet precarious balancing act at a time when the public shows little appetite for international adventurism. But the administration’s reactions often come across as ad hoc and late.

Too much of the foreign policy debate is focused on prospects for and against military action. Not enough energy is spent on tapping into the enormous strengths of the American economy, a global powerhouse despite the disappointing performance of recent years. Case in point: Why not admit many more of the millions displaced from their homes by war and violence?

We’ve done it before, and well. American leaders at the end of World War II laid the foundation for the eventual emergence of an increasingly integrated global economy by embracing freer world trade. They knew that international trade encourages the spread of new commercial ideas, new technologies, and new ways of doing business. Less appreciated has been the powerful growth-boosting effect of immigration, the freer movement of human capital across borders, especially for the U.S. The modern wave of immigration to America is one of the great economic and social stories in our history, with newcomers nurturing innovation in technological enclaves such as Silicon Valley and resuscitating neighborhoods in metropolitan areas such as New York.

American foreign policy should put a greater emphasis on welcoming more refugees. The American experience is that the policy is a win-win investment for the U.S. and the newcomers, an approach that allows for doing good and doing well during a particularly trying geopolitical moment. “America is the wealthiest country in the world,” says Ian Bremmer, head of Eurasia Group, the global political risk research and consulting firm headquartered in New York City. “We are built on immigrants. Our values are aligned with immigrants.”

The most pressing case for now is Syria. The United Nations refugee update for June has more than 2.87 million Syrians seeking shelter from the brutal civil war in neighboring countries, mostly in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. The fighting in Syria began in 2011 and America’s total humanitarian assistance has reached more than $2 billion. Yet during that time the U.S. has admitted just 138 refugees from Syria, according to the State Department’s refugee admissions report of May 31. Earlier in the year the Obama administration eased requirements on entry for Syrian refugees, which hopefully will bring in a few hundred more.

Why not welcome many more refugees, at least in the thousands? In 2012, Syrian refugees made up 0.05 percent of the total admitted. “We don’t want to put boots on the ground, with good reason,” says Bremmer. “We like the Syrian people. We don’t want them to die. We should take the lead.”

Refugees came here in large numbers in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, mostly from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos (the Hmong people). Another large wave of refugees arrived in the U.S. with the end of the cold war, including people fleeing former satellite countries of the Soviet Union in Africa, such as Somalia. The return on admittance has been enormous.

Minnesota may be forever Scandinavian in popular imagination, thanks to public radio bard Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion. Yet the Twin Cities have been a magnet for migrants. The Vietnamese and Hmong started arriving in the late 1970s following the Vietnam War. The Somali migration to Minnesota began in the late 1990s, with about a third coming directly from refugee camps. Most of these newcomers weren’t the kind of highly educated, English-fluent immigrants that populate Silicon Valley and other high-tech hot spots. Yet since arriving in Minnesota, these newcomers have contributed to the dynamism of the local economy (PDF). The effect has been cumulative, growing over time.

To be sure, in recent months as many as 15 young Somali-American men from the Twin Cities have gone to Syria to join groups trying to overthrow the Assad regime, according to the FBI. That figure, while disturbing, pales next to the estimated 1,200 African-owned businesses in 2008, up from zero in 1994, according to estimates from Hussein Samatar, the recently deceased founder of the African Development Center in Minneapolis. Taken altogether, Minnesota’s foreign-born have revitalized communities as immigrant entrepreneurs and their families put down stakes.

Immigration is controversial. A segment of American society is deeply opposed to any policy that calls for more open borders. (Just ask former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.) Assimilating newcomers is never easy, either, whether they come from Syria or from the Congo. Still, the humanitarian impulse behind embracing more refugees is just. And by any geo-economic calculation, their efforts to create a better life in the U.S. will enrich the nation’s coffers far more than the resources they’ll absorb. Welcoming those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is the kind of sensible foreign policy commitment that also keeps the American dream burning bright for the rest of us.

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