A recent news story in Politico reports that Trump administration officials are considering dramatically reducing refugee admissions in the next fiscal year to a figure between 3,000 and 10,000, or perhaps, even as low as zero. This proposal is antithetical to what should be our American values, and deeply distressing to me on a personal level.
I exist because of our country’s willingness to resettle refugees. My maternal grandparents came to the U.S. as political refugees from Europe in 1949. My grandfather was an anti-communist and decorated war hero in his home country of Poland, who was blacklisted by the Soviets after the Iron Curtain descended on Europe. He fought the Nazis in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and was taken prisoner of war, only to find himself unable to return to his own country after the war.
The United States took him in as a political refugee, and he created a life and a family here. My mother was born just a few months after her parents arrived in the U.S. as refugees. My grandfather was a medical doctor – a psychiatrist who devoted his career to treating the mentally ill. My grandmother had studied law in her home country, but here she raised children and worked in a public library, sharing her love of reading with her community.
My grandparents became U.S. citizens just five years after arriving, and were active participants in the community, voters, and parents of three American children and four American grandchildren, including myself. Their descendants have become lawyers, teachers, librarians, performers, and journalists, and our American story has only been possible because of the life that the refugee program gave my grandparents 70 years ago.
The United States has not always been welcoming to refugees, and it would be a whitewash of history to claim otherwise. It is well-known that Jewish refugees were turned away from the U.S. on the eve of World War II, many of whom perished in the Holocaust. And the refugee program has always been subject to the political winds. It is no coincidence that my anti-communist grandfather was granted political asylum just as the Cold War began. Other anti-communist refugees in the Cold War era, such as those from Hungary and Cuba, were allowed to enter in great numbers for decidedly political reasons.
The refugee program has never been perfect, but it has, despite it flaws, been a cornerstone of our nation’s commitment to international law since the end of World War II. Our nation’s participation in the program has demonstrated good will toward the global community, and positioned us as a partner and problem-solver in international crises.
And refugees, including such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Madeleine Albright – the first female Secretary of State, have had an enormous and obvious positive impact on American life. Refugees from far flung corners of Africa, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East have revitalized towns in many rural communities and Midwestern or Rust Belt cities. People of faith across the country, including Christians, Jews, and Muslims have been active in refugee resettlement, forging bonds with refugees who usually do not share their own religion, culture, or language.
Even considering the regular fluctuation of numbers and types of refugees the U.S. has accepted historically, there is absolutely no good reason for setting the refugee numbers at zero or the minuscule levels under consideration by the administration. Such a move would mark a new low for our nation’s treatment of immigrants.
If anything, the current global refugee crisis provides a compelling reason to increase the number of refugees we accept, at least to the historical average of 95,000 per year. At a time when millions around the world are fleeing political and religious persecution, our country has both the space and the economy to accommodate large numbers of refugees every year. To deny refugees the opportunity to thrive and contribute here is not a decision based on boosting our economy or public wellbeing in any way. It is a decision based in bigotry and spite and on political calculations of the worst kind. We can and must do better.
Kate Woomer-Deters is a Senior Attorney at the North Carolina Justice Center’s Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project.