Cruelty is not a policy

Our country is engaged in an uncivil war. We make cultural or political skirmishes into front-page news, where tweets rule and common sense is nowhere to be found. It has gone too far — we need to move way up the scale to where each of us examines his or her conscience while asking what is it that makes us Americans.

All of us are the descendants of refugees, even Native Americans whose ancestors long ago came to North America from Asia to find food and new homes. Most of us have a much more recent history that we mythologize, making our distant and not-so-distant relatives out to be entrepreneurs and fortune seekers who came to this country to take advantage of America’s bounty, but many if not most came to this country to escape religious persecution, war and famine.

In this post-fact world it is useful to ponder some truths:

¯ More Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico from the U.S. than have migrated here since the end of the 2008 Great Recession, according to available government data from both countries.

¯ FBI data shows that of the top 10 cities that received the most refugees as a percentage of their population from 2006 to 2015 nine saw their crime rates decline most dramatically.

¯ A 2017 Gallup poll that asked “whether immigrants to the United States are making the [tax] situation in the country better or worse” found that 41 percent said “worse.” But 2015 IRS data shows that 4.4 million income tax returns from workers who don’t have Social Security numbers paid $23.6 billion in income taxes, for which they claim few of the benefits documented workers get.

¯ Contrary to the current hysteria about the U.S. being overrun by illegal immigration, in 2017, illegal border crossing arrests hit a 46-year low and were down 25 percent from the previous year.

¯ Fear of immigration from largely Muslim countries runs counter to the results of a recent survey that showed that Muslims across the United States are more likely to reject violence than other Americans.

Which brings me to our current immigration debate. The people we are detaining at the border are almost all refugees. In almost every respect they resemble the people who became our great (or beyond) grandparents. They built this country and let us enjoy its bounty.

It is time for each of us to re-examine our beliefs and prejudices. Separating families at the border has given us a chance to think clearly about our larger policies. Cruelty is not a policy. We do not have an immigration crisis, despite what we might hear from partisans. Our normal processes for vetting refugees work. The question is not whether we should admit vetted refugees into the United States but how many, and how we should make sure that they become productive and assimilated.

We have always been a welcoming and compassionate country, accepting more refugees when necessary from places where life has become unbearable or the choice is to flee or die. The number of refugees we admit is small, even in times of crisis. The highest number admitted in one year was 217,000 under Ronald Reagan. It was between 70,000 and 80,000 per year under Bush and Obama, and will be 45,000 if President Trump’s cap prevails. That would be less than one refugee per million Americans.

I think we can do better, and should. Does it make sense that Ronald Reagan, that Republican hero, would admit almost five times as many refugees as would our current administration? And did those 217,000 turn out to be rapists and murderers once admitted? The evidence says that they committed fewer crimes than our fellow citizens and contributed more to our collective well-being. What is different today?

The problem is not Congress; it is us. Our elected officials are supposed to reflect our values. Those values are enshrined on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” It does not say “except Mexicans or Muslims.”

Today, the refugees from Syria are among the most desperate in the world. They are largely Muslim. Are they dangerous, mostly young angry men as some have claimed? No, more than half are female, and more than half are under 17. Many of the rest are highly educated professionals who had the savings and skills to survive in horrible conditions the longest before all options ran out. These are mostly people we want, not people to shun or fear.

It is up to us to reverse our current rush to tribalism. We need to get out and vote for candidates who can articulate what America stands for and how we will restore civility and compassion to our discourse and policies.

We can have a more civil discourse about immigration. We must. In fact, we can have a more civil discourse about everything, and must. It is time to turn our re-election-at-any-cost politicians out of office and elect some who can truly represent American values and restore our standing as a champion of civil rights and liberties.

Lee Keet lives in Saranac Lake.