By Daniel Balson, Director for Europe and Central Asia advocacy, Amnesty International
On Oct. 24, President Trump signed a new executive order, Resuming the United States Refugee Admissions Program with Enhanced Vetting Capabilities. Although the Trump administration’s ban on refugees has expired, it has been replaced by a set of restrictions that effectively dismantle the refugee admissions program. The policies include a new screening procedure for refugees referred to as “extreme vetting” and a 45,000-person annual cap on refugee admissions. In practice, these new regulations constitute a new ban on refugees.
Indeed, we need some refugee realism. Some of the refugees who would be resettled here come from countries whose governments’ ideology is anathema to the American way of life. Despite the U.S. government’s thorough review of all who apply for resettlement, many Americans fear that refugees are traumatized by war and connected to participants in armed conflict.
Yet these concerns could have just as easily been raised about my own family. My mother, father, grandmother and I fled religious persecution in the former Soviet Union to came to the U.S. We arrived during a different time, before terms like “extreme vetting” entered the national discourse. Yet, were the U.S. government inclined to do so, it could have easily portrayed us as a security threat.
Soviet citizens grew up in a country where anti-Americanism permeated the fiber of life. Children were taught that America was the land of imperialist sharks, predatory capitalists, and cultural perversions. Both my grandparents survived World War II and become engineers in service of the Soviet military; one built rockets and the other submarines. Several distant relatives participated in the Russian revolution. One even founded a revolutionary party whose political offshoot would go on to assassinate Tsar Alexander II. Yet despite our forebears, we were horrified at the government’s casual disregard for human life and human rights. Our proximity to Soviet ideology simply increased our desire to escape it.
Opponents of refugee resettlement will always allege some novel threat to explain why this particular wave of refugees is unlike the last. In truth, their arguments are never novel. The refugees in question are always “too risky,” their integration is always “too costly,” and the political climate is always “too volatile.”
In 1972, U.S. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson suggested impeding trade with the Soviet Union so long as it continued to bar Jewish citizens from emigrating. His proposal, later dubbed the Jackson-Vanik amendment, was met with suspicion by the Nixon administration, the media, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all of whom feared that the issue would inconvenience businesses and raise political tensions.
Yet despite these concerns, members of Congress put aside expediency in favor of humanity and the amendment passed. “Have we no conscience?” inveighed Congressman Frank Brasco (D-NY). Do we stand for nothing except a fast buck? Is selling Pepsi-Cola in Russia more important than freeing a family to live differently than their fore-bearers?” Brasco is not the first Congressman to elegantly turn a phrase, but his argument is memorable to me because the family in his example could well have been mine.
My family came the U.S. just over a decade after the Jackson-Vanik amendment, part of a wave of Jews fleeing Soviet oppression. The families of Sergei Brin, the founder of Google, and Mila Kunis, the actress, were part of that wave. Most of those who came did not become titans of industry or Hollywood. They live lives of quiet gratitude, paying their taxes, raising their children, and loving their neighbor as best they can.
President Trump’s new ban on refugees makes a mockery of some of the world’s most vulnerable people, refugees such as Syrians, Yemenis, South Sudanese, Rohingya, and others worldwide fleeing relentless war and persecution. His proposed 45,000-person cap is miserly. It breaks with precedent and endangers lives. Were we to open our doors to these refugees, they won’t join radical organizations and they might not usher in a national economic renaissance. But they will breathe free from the violence that once stalked them and they will be grateful Americans. They should be offered that chance.
Daniel Balson is the Director for Europe and Central Asia advocacy at Amnesty International. He tweets at @EurasiaView.