Immigrants, Refugees, Asylum Seekers and The Myths of Migration

When I was a child, I thought everyone was a first generation American like me. I couldn’t believe it when friends said their parents and grandparents were born here. All of my maternal and paternal family — parents, aunts, uncles and their parents — emigrated to the United States and Canada to flee persecution as Jews in Russia. That history is, in part, why stories of refugees and immigrants move me mightily, as they did in the recent book, The New Odyssey: The Story of the 21st Century Refugee Crisis, by Patrick Kingsley.

It’s been widely said that unless we are Native American, we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants here in the U.S. What isn’t emphasized enough perhaps is the crucial role immigration has played in the story of America.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), immigrants account for 47 percent of the increase in the workforce in this country over the past ten years. They fill important places in both fast-growing and declining sectors of the economy and contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits. Further, they boost the working age population and contribute notably to technological progress as well as to filling jobs regarded by domestic workers as unappealing or lacking career prospects. It should be clear from such research that most immigrants don’t come here seeking social benefits; they come to find work so they can improve the lives of their families.

A recent study using 2014 data conducted by the New American Economy, revealed that immigrant workers earned nearly $655 million and contributed one in every 29 tax dollars to the state. They paid almost $86 million in social security and Medicare taxes (even though they don’t receive Medicare benefits), and then contributed to the U.S. economy for housing, food, and other basic needs. Clearly, it is a “myth that immigrants simply drain public coffers,” as Michelle Chen put it in The Nation last year.

Asylum seekers, on the other hand, are displaced persons who are fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries, as my grandparents and parents did. They are requesting sanctuary individually, unlike refugees who are invited and resettled by the U.S. Department of State after a prolonged process of vetting and judicial review.

A myth about refugees is that once they are resettled, crime rates go up. Not true. For example, Decatur, Georgia took in 6600 refugees from countries like Burma and Iraq between 2006 and 2015. During that period, violent crime rates went down by over 62 percent and property crime went down by nine percent. These FBI statistics are similar to those of most other large and small cities. Further, according to a CNN report, “no person accepted into the United States as a refugee, Syrian or otherwise, has been implicated in a major fatal terrorist attack since the Refugee Act of 1980 set up systematic procedures for accepting refugees into the United States.”

Given the data, and the reality of life for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, it is deeply sad that U.S. immigration policy is being driven by fear, stereotyping and falsehoods. The stigma of ‘criminality’ ascribed to people who have suffered in unimaginable ways is not only unfortunate and unfair, it is wrong. Recent ICE actions, and the threat of more border patrols, national guard units and police being coopted into roundup and arrests is irrational, alarming and counterproductive.

About 44 million foreign-born people now live in the U.S. Something like 33 million of them are lawful immigrants, including naturalized citizens, green card holders, students and workers, like the doctors from abroad who came to practice in underserved areas but were recently turned away during the Muslim Ban. Of the other 11 million, three-fifths entered the country without proper documents; the other two-fifths simply overstayed their visas.

Among the people who came to this country one way or another and live here are Nobel Prize winners, MacArthur “Genius” Awardees, and founders of large companies. Many of them now say they feel discriminated against because of their religion or country of origin. Some are fearful. As a New York Times editorial put it, “They await the fists pounding on the door, the agents in black, the cuffs, the van ride, the cell.”

That’s no way for anyone to live, especially in a country that considers itself “exceptional” for its principles of religious and political freedom. A recent Senate resolution stated that “the United States should remain a global leader in welcoming and providing refuge to refugees and asylum seekers and that no person should be banned from entering the United States because of their nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender.”

Is that really so hard for the so-called leaders of the free world to agree upon?