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?

The Horror of Detention Centers is Making a Comeback

I can’t get the pictures out of my mind. The barracks. The women with babies and bundles disembarking from buses. The guards. The packed dining halls and inadequate living quarters. The sons in US military uniform.

They are, of course, the pictures of Japanese Americans interned at Manzanar and other internment camps during WWII, many of them now on display at the Smithsonian’s national Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

Seventy-five years ago, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the imprisonment of Japanese Americans, about 120,000 of them – men, women, children, elders - were held in ten camps across the country where appalling conditions prevailed. Toilets lacked privacy, barracks were filled with rows of cots, guards with rifles patrolled from towers, barbed wire surrounded the desolate landscape, and fear was ever-present.

“It was like Nazi Germany concentration camps,” recalls a woman who was interned at the age of seven. “We were constantly under threat if we went near the barbed wire fences.”

Today many people are rightly worried that the growth of “detention centers” to be run by large private corporations that profit hugely from operating such centers will be used as holding camps for immigrants awaiting deportation. They have every reason to be afraid following Donald Trump’s recent executive order and his promise to remove “bad duded” quickly and completely.

And anyone who thinks the recent roundups aimed at capturing undocumented immigrants aren’t an escalation needs to think again.  Recently, passengers on a domestic flight arriving at JFK airport in New York were not allowed to disembark before showing their IDs.  An undocumented immigrant diagnosed with a brain tumor while in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody was forcibly returned to a detention center from her hospital bed in Texas. She told reporters her ankles and wrists were tied as she complained of severe pain. Neither her family nor her lawyers were allowed to communicate with her. It’s pure Kafka.

According to the ACLU, the U.S. immigration detention system locks hundreds of thousands of immigrants away unnecessarily every year. These detainees are subject to brutal and inhumane conditions, confined sometimes indefinitely, at huge costs to American taxpayers. Mothers and children are torn from each other in many cases. No regulations or enforceable standards are in place so that medical and mental health treatment, access to telephones, access to legal services, and even to religious services are denied. And many of the people trapped in such Draconian settings are lawful permanent residents and asylum seekers.

Such detention centers have grown exponentially in recent years and more are planned as ICE turns to contracted facilities such as for-profit prison corporations. These facilities operate outside the purview of public oversight and accountability and they have limited, often untrained staff, which translates into poor care and treatment of inmates, in order to maximize shareholder returns. They have, ACLU says, “a particularly grisly record of detainee abuse and neglect.”

Human Rights Watch Reports that indefinite detention of asylum-seeking mothers and their children takes a severe psychological toll. Many of them report serious depression, suicidal thoughts, and other symptoms of major psychological trauma.

Detention of innocent people is not new in America as we know from the Japanese American experience. In another example, after 9-11, several innocent men who had overstayed their visas were detained, abused, and otherwise badly mistreated because they were suspected of being radical Muslims. Several of these men who had been detained for months or in some cases years sued the Justice Department’s Attorney General (John Ashcroft), the FBI director (Robert Mueller) and several other government officials for violation of their fourth amendment rights. In January of this year, their case reached the Supreme Court. With Justices Kagan and Sotomayor having to recuse themselves, only six justices, four of them right-leaning, will decide the case.

It’s a case that brings together the Muslim Ban, the increasingly brutal roundups of immigrants and asylum-seekers, the issues surrounding private “detention” centers, and the role of the courts in addressing and ending law enforcement transgressions, especially in a Trump administration. Let’s hope the courts, at every level, get it right. The very future of our nation, which prides itself on being dedicated to freedom and human rights, depends on nothing more vital than a sound, well-reasoned, compassionate and moral judicial system.