Co-authored with Douglas Kindschi, Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU
Nearly every American can claim ancestors who were immigrants, many of whom were refugees from oppression and religious intolerance. They came here to find freedom and to seek opportunities that were not available in the land they left. It’s difficult to leave one’s home forever and crossing an ocean was no easy passage, but the hope of a new life was a powerful incentive. Upon arrival, the willingness to work hard in a new land was key to their success.
It is not much different for today’s refugees. They leave oppression and intolerance to find freedom and opportunity for themselves and especially for their children. Many are leaving war torn lands where they have lost their homes and are in constant danger of losing their lives. They are willing to work hard, learn a new language, and fit into our society. Like our ancestors, they also hope to preserve many of their own practices and traditions as they settle into new communities.
But are refugees, as many fear, a threat to our country’s safety?
Countless careful studies have coalesced on a single significant conclusion: refugees aren’t violent. Instead they desperately desire peace and harmony as they seek to escape the violence that has driven them from their homes.
In the 40-year period for which we have data (1975-2015), America has admitted over 3.2 million refugees. A recent Cato Institute study points out that only three have been involved in terrorist activity leading to death, and those three came from Cuba in the late ‘70s, prior to the current law passed in 1980 that established a rigorous vetting procedure. Not a single person admitted as a refugee from a Muslim-majority country has been involved in a fatal terrorist attack.
Of the 19 terrorists who were involved in the 9/11 tragedy, none were refugees and none were from countries that are included in the current refugee ban.
Refugees are, to repeat, human beings desperately seeking to escape violence and war. They seek entrance to our country, like our immigrant ancestors, because they want to raise their families in peace, and they despise the criminal and violent acts that drove them out of their homes.
Refugees also provide valuable insight and intelligence, often having come from areas where there is significant conflict created by terrorist groups like ISIS. They are especially motivated to help in defeating the very groups that drove them out of their homes. And make no mistake—the vast majority of Muslims do not want to live under ISIS’s merciless rule.
Criminal statistics show that refugees in particular and immigrants in general have a significantly lower criminal and incarceration rate than native-born populations. These statistics led New York Times columnist David Brooks to remark that if we want our streets safer, we should admit more immigrants.
There are other ways that refugees and immigrants are an asset to our communities. Michigan’s immigrants were more than three times as likely as U.S.-born Michigan residents to start a new business. Nearly one-third of all high-tech startups in the state between 1990 and 2005 had an immigrant founder. More than half of America's billion-dollar startups have been founded by immigrants.
What are the characteristics of a successful entrepreneur? Dissatisfaction with the status quo and a willingness to take risks and work hard. This perfectly describes a refugee or immigrant who is willing and motivated to leave their home and risk starting a new life in a strange land. Immigrants are also highly motivated to work hard to ensure a new and better life for themselves and their families. No wonder they are a significant part of a growing economy.
The church we attend is currently working with a family who recently arrived from Iraq. Although they already had a brother, father, and sister and her family already living in West Michigan, it took two years in a refugee camp in Jordan before the thorough screening and vetting allowed them to enter the United States and join the rest of their family. Both parents have bachelor degrees in the sciences and their three children are highly motivated to be successful in their schools.
They are an asset to our community and a blessing to all of us who have had the privilege to work with them.
From a religious perspective, we are doing precisely what has been commanded. In the Jewish Scripture it says: “When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not ill-treat him. The stranger who lives with you shall be treated like the native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33).
Likewise, Jesus said: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” (Matthew 25:35).
Let us welcome the refugee and the diversity and enriched culture they bring with them. They make us safer, add to the richness of our community, and, if we reach out to them, are a blessing to all of our lives.