Talking Turkey on Immigration 2015

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Today, I have the pleasure of following in the footsteps of Mary Giovagnoli, who, during her five years at the American Immigration Council, entertained and enlightened us with her annual blog about how to survive and thrive when the topic turns to immigration at the Thanksgiving Day table. With good humor, she reminded us that winning over our families and friends requires finding common ground, knowing our audience, telling the personal story, and offering practical solutions.

This year, perhaps even more than in past years, immigration has gone mainstream. It has taken center stage in the presidential campaigns and dominated the headlines, particularly on the issue of the refugee crises. Yet, the debate around immigration tends to be driven by misstatements, half-truths, and ignorance of the facts. It often focuses on what doesn’t work—trying to assign blame rather than identifying pragmatic solutions. In the debate, fear and xenophobia can overpower compassion and tolerance. But armed with the facts, and a hearty sprinkling of moral courage, we can move the conversation—a conversation that starts at our very own dinner tables.

So here are some helpful facts to have on-hand—facts that may help allay fears and overcome prejudices:

  1. Immigrants—including lawful permanent residents and undocumented—make enormous contributions to the U.S. economy as workers, consumers, taxpayers, and entrepreneurs. Reams of data prove that there is no correlation between immigration and unemployment.
  2. Higher immigration is associated with lower crime rates, and that has been the case for 100 years.
  3. Undocumented immigrants would get in line for a visa—if there were a line to get into. But there is no feasible pathway for many individuals to obtain legal status in the United States. Unauthorized immigration is the result of an outdated system that is unresponsive to the labor demands of the economy and the human needs of families seeking reunification.

These basic facts aside, the most pressing immigration issue of the day is the Syrian refugee crisis. The media has widely covered the issue following the attacks that took place in Paris just two weeks ago. Since that time, some have called for denying entry to Syrian refugees and others have even suggested offering refuge only to Christians.

The bottom line is this: closing our doors to refugees of all religions is the wrong approach. Syrian refugees are fleeing exactly the kind of terror that unfolded on the streets of Paris. We must respond to this crisis by carrying on our history of welcoming those fleeing such dire situations. A few points to remember:

  1. We have an extremely rigorous screening process to ensure the safety and security of our country. Refugees are by far the most scrutinized group of migrants to the United States, undergoing multiple, intense background checks, medical screenings, and interviews. On average, the process takes 18-24 months for refugees to be screened by our government and approved for travel. There have been no recorded terrorist acts carried out in our country by a refugee.
  2. We must accept people of all faiths. It is well to remember on this and every Thanksgiving that the Pilgrims came to America seeking religious freedom, which has always been—and remains—a core American value. Since 1975, we’ve resettled more than 3 million refugees from around the world and from a variety of faiths. In 2015, one-third of the refugees who resettled in the United States came from the Near East/South Asia, a region that includes Iraq, Iran, Bhutan, and Afghanistan. Another third came from Africa, and over one-quarter came from East Asia. Simply stated, we have a responsibility to help those who are vulnerable and are facing violence and terrorism, regardless of faith.
  3. We must not repeat our mistakes. Despite our proud refugee history, there have been instances where we’ve closed our doors to those in need. The legacy of the M.S. St. Louis is sadly part of my family’s immigration story. In 1939, 937 Jews boarded the transatlantic liner in hopes of seeking protection in the United States. Among them was my five year-old son’s namesake, his great-great-uncle, Martin Wiesenfelder. The ship was turned away and returned to Europe. More than one-quarter of the passengers perished in the Holocaust, including Martin, who was killed in Auschwitz. This is a stain on our history, and one we must not forget–or repeat.

On a day where Americans reflect upon all that they are thankful for, it is most fitting that we remember what we can and should offer those who are not so fortunate.

Please read more about these issues in our new Perspectives article, Learning from Our Past: The Refugee Experience in the United States by David W. Haines, Ph.D.

Photo Courtesy of GeneralMills.

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