There is a misperception, promoted by heated rhetoric during last year’s presidential campaign, that the U.S. is being flooded with dangerous refugees. Most people also believe that refugees coming to the U.S. are all Muslim and are coming here to invade and upend our culture. And many people believe that most U.S. refugees are Syrians.
None of that is true.
Despite what you may see on Facebook or read on some right-wing websites, “millions” of refugees are not flooding into the U.S., nor are they all Muslim, nor are they mostly Syrians.
What is true is that the world today has more refugees than at any time since WWII — around 65 million people who have been displaced from their homes due to no fault of their own. The U.S. has accepted only a very small percentage of refugees out of that 65 million.
And we should not confuse “refugees” with “immigrants.” Immigrants are people who choose to move to the U.S., or other countries, often for economic reasons. Some come legally, other illegally.
By contrast, refugees are people who have been involuntary displaced from their homes by war, famine, persecution or natural disaster. Immigrants choose to move, refugees don’t.
Here’s a rundown of the facts:
Isn’t the U.S. being overrun with millions of refugees? No. In FY2015, the U.S. let in 70,000 refugees and in 2016, 85,000. The number of refugees is capped each year. Since 1995, that number has been under 100,000 per year (58,000-85,000). By comparison, in 1980-1982, over 200,000 refugees were allowed to enter the U.S. each year. Since Sept. 11, 2001, 15 years, the U.S. has let in a total of 784,000 refugees, far less than the “millions” that many people believe.
But aren’t we being overwhelmed with Syrian refugees? No. Syrian refugees are only a small number of those the U.S. has let in. Of the 70,000 refugees in 2015, only 1,682 were Syrians. That number went up last year to 12,500, but was still less than the 16,300 the U.S. let in from the Republic of Congo. It is that one-year statistical increase from 1,682 to 12,500 that right-wing websites are using to scare Americans that Syrian refugees are flooding in. The percentage of increase is of course high, but the raw numbers are not.
But we aren’t checking these people out! Yes we are. Refugees are only allowed to enter the U.S. after extensive background checks. It takes 18-24 months for most refugees to clear the vetting process.
But refugees cost taxpayer money and they are uneducated. Yes, it does cost taxpayer funds to resettle these refugees, many of whom have lost all that they owned in the homelands. But they’re not all uneducated. Of those controversial Syrian refugees, for example, 28 percent have college educations which is similar to the 29 percent of U.S. born adults. As for cost, many private organizations, including churches, offer financial assistance and training programs to new refugees. It isn’t just government money that helps refugees and most eventually become independent of government assistance after being resettled here.
But aren’t all these refugees Muslim? No. While the number of Muslim refugees has gone up due to the wars in Iraq and Syria, Muslims made up less than half (46%) of refugees in 2016. Christians made up 44 percent of refugees last year. The other 10 percent were largely Buddhist or Hindu. Overall, there have been far more Christian refugees allowed into the U.S. than any other religion.
But aren’t a lot of these Muslims terrorists? No, that’s not what the record shows. Of the 784,000 refugees let in since 2001, only three have been convicted of planning a terrorist act (none of the acts took place.) That’s far less than the number of home-grown terrorists we’ve seen.
But won’t we end up like Europe with terrorist refugees? Europe has a different situation. Many of the refugees in Europe are going there illegally by boat and are not vetted as they are before coming into the U.S. You can’t compare what’s happening in Europe to what’s happening in the U.S. The situations are completely different.
But why don’t other countries take refugees? They do. Overall, only 12 percent of the world’s refugee population is being hosted in the Americas (U.S., Canada, Mexico and Central America.) Middle Eastern countries house 39 percent of refugees while Africa has 29 percent. Europe, where there is so much controversy, has six percent of the world’s refugees.
Well, the U.S. can’t take in so many refugees. We have before. Following our exit from Vietnam in 1975, the U.S. took in around 1.2 million refugees from Indochina over the next decade or so, mostly from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Many people would agree that the U.S. was successful in integrating those people into American culture economically and politically.
What about locally, are we being flooded with refugees? No. Last year, no refugees were resettled into Jackson, Banks or Barrow counties. Only one refugee was resettled into Madison County. Since 2004, Barrow County has had 37 refugees, Jackson County 21, Madison County 148 and zero in Banks County. All four counties have refugees that predate 2004, many from Southeast Asia.
None of this is to suggest that there aren’t some serious refugee issues that U.S. policymakers should consider. For example, there could be a lot of debate in the coming months about whether religion should be a consideration in the refugee program. Some on the far right, for example, want to ban all Muslim refugees.
That would be a mistake, but it would also be a mistake to totally discount religion in the review process. Christian minorities in the Middle East have been heavily persecuted and should be given strong consideration for entry into the U.S. That’s not because they’re Christians per se, but because they are a group that has been singled out for persecution due to their religion.
For the long term, the real issue in the U.S. is how well we integrate refugees into the mainstream culture of the nation.
That’s where European countries have failed, the result being enclaves of unassimilated refugees who are ripe for exploitation by terrorist groups. (Europe also has an immigration problem of unassimilated people that adds to their crisis.)
The U.S. has done a much better job of assimilating refugees into our political and social culture. That is largely due to our nation’s history of being a melting pot of people from around the world. It is something our institutions are accustomed to doing for over 200 years.
The U.S. has a moral obligation to help innocent people who, through no fault of their own, have become refugees.
That’s woven into our national DNA since many of our own ancestors came here as refugees.
In addition, many of today’s refugees are the direct result of U.S. actions (wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), or the lack of U.S. action (the civil war in Syria.) In effect, the U.S. helped create this refugee crisis in the first place.
It’s a shame that some of our political leaders are using refugees as scapegoats.
But that nationalistic rhetoric and fear-mongering is both factually wrong and morally repugnant.
You needn’t be afraid of refugees. They pose little danger.
What is dangerous are the fanatical nationalists and isolationists who tell you otherwise.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers, Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.