Feb. 6, 2017

Don't Fix the Unbroken Programs

I’VE SPENT the past seven years conducting research in refugee camps around the world. I’ve interviewed hundreds of U.S. aid workers, humanitarian relief staff and refugees.

I was in a camp in Nepal that had existed for more than two decades — driven from their homes in Bhutan, these people were forced to live in stick huts with mud floors, dirt pit latrines and swarming insects, all made worse seasonally when the monsoon rains would flood the camp.

As I moved through the camp, children ran behind me beaming and saying, “I am going to Minnesota!” “I am going to Utica!” America was a beacon of hope, the promise of a new home.

The U.S. Refugee Resettlement program is a success. At a time when few from either party can agree on what government programs are working well, we have one to point to.

America is great because of our generosity. The Statue of Liberty is the symbol of our land, and on it is inscribed “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” No one is yearning to breathe free more than those who have been forced from their homes, lost their loved ones and been interned for decades, unable to move and unable to work.

You have likely never heard the plight of many of these communities. My research shows the vast majority of the world’s ongoing 65 massive displacement crises receive no attention by the media. The people suffer unseen and unheard. A precious few get the chance at a new life in the United States.

I can tell you two things that are facts, based on actual research on the ground: These people have endured unimaginable suffering, are as terrified of terrorists as we are and, after years of displacement, deserve a chance at a new life.

Our State Department and Homeland Security staff overseas, as well as our resettlement organizations at home, have been running a tremendously successful program — one that demonstrates America’s great capacity for compassion while at the same time keeping us safe.

Year in and year out, Homeland Security staff members are stationed overseas, in difficult conditions, hearing the heartbreaking stories and vetting refugees who hope for a new beginning. These refugees look to countries such as America that respect the rule of law, enshrine rights for everyone regardless of their cultural background and that provide an opportunity to succeed through hard work.

None of the terrorists who carried out Islamic extremist attacks in the United States entered this country as refugees. The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program works. It should be celebrated, not frozen.

Do not confuse the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program with the situation in Europe. They are completely different. The United States stringently vets all refugees before they land on our soil. This is quite different from the millions of individuals fleeing into Europe and then requesting asylum.

U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe, have been doing Virginia proud, speaking up for refugee rights and standing on the right side of history. Other Virginia representatives should follow their lead.

There are many programs that are broken in this country. Democrats and Republicans alike can agree that we need to spend energy fixing our schools, workforce development programs and criminal justice system. Let’s stop trying to “fix” a program that isn’t broken.

In This Article

Professor of Public Policy and Politics and Director of Social Entrepreneurship @ UVA
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