When founding The Common Courtesy, we envisioned a website promoting civility and mutual respect in political discourse in the hopes that this would lead to cooperation. The president’s comments earlier this month characterizing certain poorer countries in vulgar and demeaning terms are completely antithetical to our organization and its purpose. His words were unfair and unbefitting the highest representative office of the American people.
The comment, which came during a bipartisan meeting on immigration reform and the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), belied Trump’s failure to recognize the difference between immigration policy and refugee policy. Both are very strict and involve long waits and numerous background checks. Both result in a select few receiving permission to reside in the United States. But each has its own process and each process prioritizes different characteristics in applicants. More importantly, each fulfills a different need for the U.S.
Those fleeing persecution, destitution, and genocidal regimes need a welcoming haven. We have a moral obligation to help people in need. On the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of the freedom of America to the world, the words of Emma Lazarus proclaim, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Admitting (some amount of) refugees is the right thing to do, and thus fulfills our duty to be good.
Furthermore, the United States in 1967 signed onto the Protocol – basically an update to the 1951 Convention – of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This set the definition of a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” In the half century that followed we have committed ourselves to support other campaigns on the resettlement of such people. In other words, admitting refugees fulfills our duty to keep our word.
Outside of obligations to morality and standing by our commitments, the cost of helping refugees is comparatively low and the demand is high, all the more reason to take care of those in need. The United States, already a melting pot, has an enormous population drawn from all over the world. We could help a significant number of people without changing the culture of our nation. This should not be an issue of party.
What is more likely to divide along party lines, however, is immigration policy – the other side of the ‘newcomer’ coin. Immigrants, as opposed to refugees, leave their countries for primarily economic reasons. Many come to the U.S. seeking to move up in the world, to make better lives for themselves and their families. The result is that the United States has a moral obligation to accept refugees, but it does not have that moral obligation to accept immigrants.
Immigrants have a state to look out for them (admittedly rarely as well as the United States), while refugees and asylum seekers are generally considered stateless citizens. This, in essence, is where the moral obligation for the refugee stems from. An immigrant does not have the same status. Claiming, “we are a nation of immigrants”, while being true, does not denote an obligation, nor is it a policy point. Being a nation of immigrants is our history. Therefore, we are not compelled to accept immigrants. However, the lack of a moral obligation to them does not mean the United States should not accept immigrants.
Our moral obligation fulfilled by a solid refugee policy, the choice of how we select immigrants takes on a new character. The problem that many Republicans have with the lottery-system immigration policy is that it is too random and does too little to serve our interests as a country.
The American Immigration Center defines this part of our current approach thusly:
The US government also offers a US Green Card Lottery Program, which allows people to win permanent legal residency in the US. The US Green Card Lottery Program is officially known as the Diversity Visa Lottery Program or the DV Lottery Program. Each year, this program allows 50,000 applicants to receive a green card (and thereby permanent legal residency in the US) as part of a random lottery selection process.
This aspect of our system is aimed at raising the number of “individuals from countries underrepresented in US immigration” that receive Green Cards. While pundits from left and right may argue about the nobility of this goal, all must agree that it subverts broader national interest to the idea of diversity.
The program should be replaced with something with more tangible benefits for our country. Merit-based immigration, similar to what our allies to the north have, is what the United States should adopt. Many progressive nations like Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Denmark, Germany, and the U.K., often accept more refugees per capita than the United States, but they have stricter immigration policies where they will only take the wealthier and highly educated immigrants. Studies have shown that merit-based immigration leads to immigrants finding jobs more quickly, fewer problems with integration, and increased technological innovation.
Our country should move to a merit-based system like our allies in order that we can reap the benefits that immigrants can bring. Doing this in combination with an updated and nuanced refugee policy satisfies both our obligations to the world and to ourselves.