Anti-refugee proposals damage America

By Olivia Golden

July 4, 1999 was my proudest Independence Day. I spent it at Fort Dix, New Jersey, among hundreds of Kosovo refugees awaiting resettlement. Like so many other refugees before and since, these families had experienced deadly attacks, destruction of their homes and communities, loss of family members, and days of walking to refugee camps. Yet they wanted to make sure I heard their optimism, gratitude, and desire to contribute to the United States. 

I was at Fort Dix because, as assistant secretary for Children and Families for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, I oversaw the Office of Refugee Resettlement. That small office helps refugees integrate into the United States by finding them a place to live, connecting them to English classes, and providing time-limited benefits– a step that only happens after the nation’s foreign policy and anti-terrorism experts determine they are truly refugees and can safely be resettled here. 

But today, the refugee program is under attack. Thirty governors have said they won’t accept Syrian refugees, 289 members of Congress voted for a bill that would disrupt screenings for Syrian and Iraqi refugees, and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has said he will keep on the table the possibility of inserting anti-refugee provisions into the appropriations bills that Congress must pass by December 11 to avoid another government shutdown. 

These attacks play to unjustified fears and undercut America’s core values. White House officials and others have explained the rigorous screening process for refugees. Currently, Syrians wait for more than a year in refugee camps before admission to the United States. There is simply no logical link between refugees and terrorism. 

Take away the fear, and the most important point is that the refugee program is both a crucial expression of compassion and good for America. That’s partly because of the powerful message our actions send around the world. As I watched the faces of Kosovo refugees when hearing the words of the Declaration of Independence that Fourth of July, I was reminded again of the extraordinary resonance of living America’s values by welcoming people fleeing war and oppression. 

Welcoming refugees is also good for America because of the extraordinary contributions refugees make to our nation of immigrants, as mayors from 18 cities as diverse as Dayton and Los Angeles described in a letter to President Obama in late September. They asked for more Syrian refugees, saying “Our cities have been transformed by the skills and the spirit of those who come to us from around the world. The drive and enterprise of immigrants and refugees have helped build our economies, enliven our arts and culture, and enrich our neighborhoods.” 

So legislative proposals to weaken America’s commitment to refugees and to our core values are bad enough. But as I see every day in my role as executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, a national anti-poverty organization, what’s even worse is threatening to attach these proposals to appropriations bills needed to carry out the October bipartisan spending agreement. Congress has the critical task before December 11 of passing an omnibus spending bill that invests in those hit hardest by the extreme budget cuts in previous years—vulnerable, poor families. Today, more than one in five U.S. children, most in working families, and almost the same share of young adults, live in poverty; millions more live in families struggling to make ends meet, yet funding for vital programs that support these children and families has shrunk over the years of budget stalemate. The future of our country—and the citizens that make up future generations—depends on Congress passing a clean budget, free from harmful proposals to refugees and their families, and sending it to President Obama. 

America benefits when it welcomes refugees fleeing from deadly violence in Syria and other countries. We benefit from the message we send to the world and from the skills, loyalty, and passion of these new Americans. I know that because my mother came here seeking refuge from Nazi terror in 1939, and she never stopped giving back -- through her work as a teacher and scholar, participation on town boards and committees, and volunteer commitments like helping out teachers in the local Head Start program. It is up to Congress to reject damaging proposals that undercut America’s values and divert attention and energy from its most basic responsibility, passing a spending bill. 

Golden is the executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, CLASP. Previously, she has served as assistant secretary for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, director of the D.C. Children and Family Services Agency, New York's director of State Operations, and in research and advocacy roles.