Ask Not What Refugees Can Do For Us…

Co-written with Eric Tang, and published by Reuters on World Refugee Day, 2016. 

Today is World Refugee Day, the most contentious one in recent memory. Refugee resettlement once enjoyed bipartisan support in the United States, but in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and Orlando there are few issues more polarizing in this election year. At the center of the storm are Syrian refugees fleeing persecution, many of them making the deadly passage across the Mediterranean. Fear-mongering conservatives demand that all Syrians be kept out of the United States. Liberals call for granting entry to a select few, albeit under strict guidelines.

But the debate overlooks an uncomfortable truth. Once they’re admitted to the United States, refugees rarely experience peace and economic stability. To see why, let’s consider the fate of a previous group of boat people — the refugees admitted to the United States after the Vietnam war and Cambodian genocide, most of whom struggled through decades of poverty and social marginalization after being resettled.

Forty-one years ago, the United States and its allies withdrew from Vietnam after a war that destabilized the region. Hundreds of thousands fled the chaos that followed, tens (and possibly hundreds) of thousands lost their lives at sea sailing for safety. At the time, liberals believed that resettling these refugees in the United States could potentially restore America’s standing as a compassionate and humanitarian nation. Conservatives felt the refugees could provide a living example that the war against communism was necessary, and that the free market was just. Agreement between the parties allowed a great deal of magnanimity — and paved the way for mass resettlement. Following the 1980 Refugee Act, the United States resettled one million refugees — not only from Vietnam but from Cambodia and Laos, where the U.S. war spilled over.

These migrants offered something for liberals and conservatives — which points to the awkward truth about the U.S. asylum process. Refugees have historically been enlisted by U.S. policymakers to corroborate an American identity most needed at the moment — savior, defender of the free market and, today, permanent victim of global terrorism and enemy of Islam. Proof lies in this fact: once refugees outlive their narrative usefulness they become disposable.

The one million migrants from Southeast Asia — who constituted the single largest wave of refugees in U.S. history — were quickly cast aside after resettlement. They were often treated negligently by resettlement agencies that placed them into housing units in some of the most devastated neighborhoods in the United States — areas that had been left for dead in the wake of 1960s urban unrest and the onset of the war on drugs. No sooner did they arrive than they were compelled to take up poverty-waged jobs or languish in the welfare state for decades. According to the past three decennial censuses, Southeast Asian refugees have maintained the highest poverty and welfare dependency rates of any ethnic group in the country. Once they had been admitted to the United States, they’d served an important political purpose, and could serve no more. So they were discarded.

Those fleeing Syria today serve their own purpose for U.S. lawmakers. They are not used as figures to be saved by American largesse. For some conservatives, they are mythological terrorists, narrative props in a post 9/11 doctrine in which America is in permanent danger. America can only be made great again by keeping them out. Even liberals who support the resettlement of a limited number of Syrians have clung to terrorist trope by demanding that they be singled out for “enhanced screening.” From the beginning of the Syrian war to the present, the number of refugees admitted to the United States is just over 2,500 — woefully short of the 10,000 that the United States pledged to resettle during this fiscal year alone.

The struggles of Syrian refugees are just beginning, and accounts of their initial days of resettlement are reminiscent of the working poverty, state dependency and social isolation experienced by Southeast Asian refugees decades earlier. The United States has done a terrible job supporting refugees, even in its finest hour. This World Refugee Day, it would be nice to break with U.S. refugee history, and ask not what they can do for us, but what we might do for them.

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