Friday, February 3, 2017

Sitting with Refugees and Immigrants

I sit.  She sits.  We sit together in grey plastic chairs, nearly knee to knee beside a brown woodgrain table.  You know the kind.  The sturdy plastic, institutional kind.  The kind that are made for hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of pencils scratching across their surface, as students complete their work.

I have heard that when she first enrolled in class, that some said school was the only place she didn't cry.  For a whole year.  This school was the only place she didn't cry.  Who wouldn't cry if they had fled madmen with knives and guns, whose violent acts apart from knives and guns made knives and guns seem somehow kind?  Who wouldn't cry if they knew that their family members had been beheaded, knowing that they might actually catch a glimpse of a neighbor or relative on the nightly national news, but only because of the horror that was happening near by?

I wonder now, two years into her new life, how much her heart has really settled.  How often does she still feel like a foreigner in a strange land?  How many times does she think about her old life, the one that she had to let go of just two long short years ago?  How hard does she work to keep those tears at bay?  How intermixed is her gratitude with heartache and longing?

I sit.  She sits.  American.  Kurdish.  Christian.  Yazidi.  Women.

Every day, I teach English to refugees and immigrants.  I teach parenting and navigating an American school and understanding American culture.  I sit next to Muslim women in hijabs and a Yazidi woman with tattoos across her fingers that I'd love to know more about, next to a Mexican woman with beautiful green brown eyes, a Sudanese woman who is also Muslim, and a French speaking man who is Congolese. 

I am not hysterical regarding the latest news from the White House.  I am optimistically concerned.  (Is that even a thing?)  More than anything my heart is weary.  I feel like I should say something.  Because unlike many of you, I sit next to the very people impacted by these policies.  I'm not sharing information, asking you to pick a side.  I'm not sharing information asking you to agree with me.  (Because in some ways, I'm not quite sure what I believe.  I'm honestly not sure I could articulate a position.)  I am asking you to read and think and consider how is on the other side of the visa desk, to be introspective in how you talk and act towards refugees and immigrants.

Let me start by sharing Senator Ben Sasse's words.  "The President is right to focus attention on the obvious fact that borders matter. At the same time, while not technically a Muslim ban, this order is too broad. There are two ways to lose our generational battle against jihadism by losing touch with reality. The first is to keep pretending that jihadi terrorism has no connection to Islam or to certain countries. That’s been a disaster. And here's the second way to fail: If we send a signal to the Middle East that the U.S. sees all Muslims as jihadis, the terrorist recruiters win by telling kids that America is banning Muslims and that this is America versus one religion. Both approaches are wrong, and both will make us less safe. Our generational fight against jihadism requires wisdom."

I appreciated Senator's Sasse's ability to see both sides of the issue as it is connected to admitting refugees and immigrants.  It is foolhardy to believe that every person who desires to immigrate here has good intentions.  Likewise, it is also unwise to operate from a place of fear.  The last few days have left my head spinning a bit.  Between pundits and hard news and Facebook's version of news, I just have been discouraged at it all.

It is hard to watch people take complex, complicated issues and reduce them into simple, black or white issues.  I think that's why I liked Senator Sasse's words, because he refused to do that.  The reality is it is not either or.  We do not have to support and provide for only veterans or only the homeless or only refugees.  We can do both.  We do not have to be compassionate or security minded.  We can be both.  We do not have to be only rooted in justice or only rooted in mercy.  We can be both.  We do not have to be patriotic or service oriented.  We can be both.  With no intent to be dramatic, as a Christian, I often live with this tension of being accountable to Jesus about my choices.  I most certainly have a list of verses that govern how I hope to live  If you are someone who would claim the same faith, I'd hope you also have a list of verses that influence how you live and why you believe what you believe, a list that is not just about the things you can easily connect to Biblical living but to things that are a bit more nuanced, where you have to do some soul seeking with God about how His words influence your worldview.  Thinking about immigration and refugees should not be exempt from this.

One of the hardest things for me to watch is when someone's opinion is connected to a na├»ve understanding of the truth.  Or even worse, it's hard to hear someone share something that comes from a flat out lie.  I've seen both.  Please, before you form an opinion, do your homework. We of course will make mistakes.  We of course will not always hear the whole story.  We will of course find ourselves influenced by the way a reporter covered the story.  And there are of course situations where the facts will lead two people to make two different conclusions.  But often, people don't do even a basic Google search in order to fact check their opinion.

At the risk of sounding like a blow hard, here are a few examples I've seen in the last week.  I am not saying I understand all of these issues perfectly.  I am certainly not an immigration official.  I am not trying to put any spin on these issues, other than to share what seem to be true, as best as I understand it.

Illegal immigrants need to fill out their papers to get legal
In regards to illegal immigrations via the United States' southern borders, I've seen people continue to assert that those here illegally should go down to an immigration office and fill out the paperwork to become legal.  With a handful of exceptions, this is simply not reality.  You cannot immigrate to the US from within our borders.  You must return to your home country, apply for a visa, and complete the required paperwork from that location.  I know that sounds simple.  However, the issue is that the US issues many different kinds of visas, with limits on how many can be issued of each kind.  The majority of people who are coming from Mexico and Central America are unskilled workers.  The number of immigrants who would be eligible for such a visa far outweighs the number of visas that our government is willing to issue.  This inequity in numbers is part of what fuels illegal immigration.

Refugee vetting is not secure
The refugee process, while not perfect, is generally speaking lengthy.  I agree that it is difficult to process people from countries where the central government is in chaos.  I have concerns over how a refugee can be properly vetted when the paperwork establishing his identity is incomplete.  However, there is a process that usually takes 18-24 months, that includes multiple steps that must be completed overseas before the refugee is allowed to enter the US.  To say with certainty that it is 100% secure is not accurate.  But it is also not accurate to assert that we are just letting whomever in to the country.  Again, there are exceptions to this and there are refugees who manage to get here without visas who are allowed entry.  (Cuban refugees are a prime example of these.  If a Cuban reaches the U.S., he is often allowed to stay despite the fact that he came without a visa.  I honestly do not know how such a policy applies to Syrians or any other Middle Eastern refugee.  However, I would guess just by using common sense that the situations are someone different due in part to Cuba's proximity to the U.S..)

Muslims from certain countries present the most risk to us
I realize that the current executive order does not specific Muslims, that it also excludes many Muslim nations.  However, I would hope those who are very concerned about radical Islam and terrorism, that they would not just buy the media narrative of radical Islam being unique to the Middle East.  Radical Islam exists in a variety forms in a variety of places.  It's face is not solely Arabic or Sudani.  It exists in Saudi Arabi, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Kenya, Bosnia, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and China.  (Yes, you read that right, China.)  I won't provide you with all of the links but if you simply google the country name followed by the phrase "Muslim terrorists" you will find a bevy of information.  I am not certain that we can assure our safety regarding terrorism by regionalizing our immigration concerns. 

Look at what has happened in Europe
Take the time to understand how European immigration laws work as well as to consider how the closeness of Europe impacts the way refugees have fled the war torn Middle East.  We are not Europe and will not be, even if there are those who might be considered in favor of open borders in the U.S..

Trump's current policies are no different than Obama's
Not exactly.  There are some similarities but there are also differences.  I can't believe I'm citing Snopes but they actually have a comprehensive comparison, along with citations of the multiple sources they used when writing up the comparison.  It's worth the read.  Also, for those who are saying this, please think about what Trump has said.  He used the words "extreme vetting."  If his plan is extreme vetting, than having a policy identical to Obama's cannot be.  Likewise, Trump's own words included the phrase "Muslim ban".  He also continually used phrases like "the blacks" or "the Mexicans."  I know for some that is just indicative of him being a plain spoken man who just says what come to mind, without considering political correctness.  However, I don't think any of us who are white would have appreciated Barack Obama referring to us as "the whites."  Trump's past words sets him apart from Obama.

Muslims should not be allowed to immigrate to the U.S. because they want to impose Sharia Law in the U.S..
If Sharia Law is of concern to you, please research it from reputable sources.  (ie not from an extreme right or left wing source)  Just like Christianity covers a vast array of opinions, so does Islam.  I have yet to find anything from a reputable, non partisan source citing Sharia Law as a real risk to the U.S..  Yes, there are stories out there but none of them seem to point to a realistic threat.  Just because a Muslim has brought a lawsuit or has acted in a certain way does not equate to a risk.  Just because one Wiccan brought a lawsuit, this doesn't equate to a Wiccan take over.  Just because one Christian killed her kids because God told her to, this doesn't equate to a Christian movement where all people should follow suit.  If the only thing you know about Sharia Law is that it is an extreme and aggressive form of Islam, research it a bit.  Not because you are wrong but because it's a complex issue.  I would not normally classify the Huffington Post as bias free since they are normally left of center but this article is actually very fact based.  I would also encourage you to read this article from the Pew Reseach Center on Islam both in America and abroad because it specifically addresses the number of Muslims in favor of Sharia Law.  How Sharia Law Became Embedded in Our Political Debate is also worth the read.  Instituting Sharia Law in the U.S. would basically require a complete gutting of the First Amendment.  It would require a lengthy legal battle involving all levels of our judicial system.  In my non-legal mind, the closest thing we have to that involve the Native American tribes.  However, even with those groups, they are generally still held to the laws of our land.  Without a doubt, we should be concerned about how women, criminals, and those of opposing faiths are treated. 

The absurd, the graphic, or the sensational
On both sides of the immigration issue there are entities who intentionally spread half truths or untruths in order to energize those who are already leaning towards an opinion.  Recognize when you are being manipulated by these sites.  I have recently read stories about a mob of Muslims killing a woman by pulling her limb from limb and that refugees are carrying a flesh eating disease into the U.S..  It's a bit like being in junior high.  (Gah!  I hate to even make that comparison.)   But seriously.  Some of this stuff is just like a junior high rumor dressed up as news.  Ask yourself if the story actually makes sense.  Ask yourself why this story is being shared, if the group sharing it appears to have an ulterior motive in doing so.  Ask yourself what is the result of the sharing, specifically does it lump people into groups and narrowly define a certain group.  Both of the examples I gave were based in a bit of truth.  A group of Muslims did kill a woman.  There are some concerns about a parasite based flesh eating disease among Syrians.  However, both are designed to incite fear.  The first story hopes to paint all Muslims as supporting such a mob.  In fact, Afghanistan, pre Taliban, was actually a very progressive Muslim country.   (If you are looking for some light reading on Afghanistan, I highly recommend The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.)  There is a disease that comes from a parasite connected to sandfly bites that does appear to be increasing in Lebanon and Turkey, as connected to an increase in Syrian refugees.  However, that is a far cry from it being an epidemic or making its way to the United States.  Also, generally speaking, when you house humans in refugee camps, outbreaks of disease are going to happen because refugee camps are not exactly the Super 8.  Similarly, on the other side, there have been numerous articles on exactly who has not been allowed to enter the US because of Trump's policies.  It's often children and may even include children with medical conditions.  This is actually true, that a travel ban impacts all kinds of children.   It is important for us to recognize that it is a trade-off, that tightening our policies will limit the entry of truly needy people into the U.S..  But it's also a tad sensationalist because the press did not highlight these concerns when there Obama place travel restrictions on Iraqis earlier.  I'm sure there have been other similar stories, where the purpose is to sensationalize the plight of refugees or immigrants; I just haven't seen them.

I'll leave you with a few links for reading.  I realize that they may have a bend to them.  It's pretty difficult to find something that doesn't.  But I think many of the perspectives shared are worth reading.  I'm not asking you to say "yes, admit all refugees or immigrants."  I am asking you to think about the person on the other side of the that word, to think about what your words, repostings, and funny memes say about that person.

Immigration 2017  This posting is specifically geared towards acting politically in support of refugees and compassionate immigration policies.  My intent of my blog post was not necessarily political so I know this seems like a bait and switch.  However, my reason for sharing this  is because the author neatly puts all of the potential immigration issues into one article, explaining how each works at face value.

A Sane Approach to the Refugee Crisis  A middle of the road article, specifically written to Christians, asking them to think about the opportunities that we are presented with via the refugees who live in our communities.  I personally interact with five Muslim women on a daily basis because they were allowed to immigrate into the United States.  While my goal is not proselytizing them, I do think there is an amazing opportunity there to be a Christian who loves them, one I would not have if they did not live here.

Washington Post article, written by a former USCIS officer  I recognize that this also might seem to encourage you to choose a side.  Not my intent.  What I think is valuable is that this post shares facts about what it looks like when we vet refugees.  I am not saying the process is fail proof.  I am not saying there are not exceptions.   I am not saying we should not be cautious.   I am saying, before you form an opinion, consider what the facts are.

Returning Refugees  A flip the script type piece, asking you to consider that many refugees may really wish to stay in their home countries, that their choice is not really a choice.  While many refugees are happy to have the safety and opportunity of the United States, it wasn't necessarily their plan for their lives.