Today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it might seem strange to be talking about immigration. But the very civil and human rights that Dr. King stood for are now at stake for displaced people — and to a lesser extent, those who support them — living in the United States in the wake of Sept. 11.
Former refugees and asylum-seekers living in America are grateful for the chance to start new lives. Despite recently passed legislation that will allow a total of 70,000 refugees into the United States in 2002, there is still political pressure for a government crackdown. Indeed, the misconceptions about refugees people hold have intensified. I want to dispel a few of these myths.
Refugees desire a life free from chronic strife. They are not merely “let into” the United States. Rather, refugee resettlement is a lengthy and orderly process; refugees and asylum-seekers must endure vigorous security background checks and health screenings. They must demonstrate that they have a “well-founded” fear of oppression, and must prove they are fleeing tangible persecution immediately upon arrival.
Because of a 1996 Anti-Terrorism law, it is difficult for displaced persons to gain entry into America. Often they cannot prove their well-founded fears because of a language barrier, and sometimes they are not even provided translators. Persons who come to America, having yet to apply for status, are placed in detention centers –read: prisons — alongside dangerous criminals. There, inhumane treatment is the rule, not the exception.
Another myth people hold is that refugees and asylum seekers “live off” our system. They ignore the bulk of statistical and empirical evidence that immigrants contribute to this nation economically by working and spending, as well as by contributing to our nation’s social and religious diversity. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is only one of many now-famous refugees.
What disturbs me more than the legislation being passed by our Congress is the war our government is waging against Afghanistan, as well as the internal war being waged against Muslims in America. The war in Afghanistan creates more refugees, making our world more unstable. I’m not saying there should be no response to Sept. 11, but our policies and their theoretical underpinnings have not been implemented with the justice of the innocent in mind.
In the aftermath of the terrorism inflicted on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it is easy to forget that many asylum-seekers are victims as well. Many perished in the attacks, and their families have a very difficult time claiming their loved ones without proper documentation.
Many Muslim refugees and asylum seekers have also become victims because of their faith. A nation laying claims to tolerance and justice should not and cannot condone the acts of violence and ignorance perpetrated against them. Ill-founded bigotry will only impede America’s efforts to uncover the true terrorists, and preclude any chances we have of progressing toward a more peaceful, tolerant society.
It is important to remember that, now more than ever, we cannot let distinctions like “refugee,” “immigrant” and “asylum-seeker” divide us. Refugees and asylum-seekers came here in search of peace, and a chance at a better, productive life for themselves and their families. They do not want to live in a country plagued by terrorism any more than America’s citizens. They also do not want to live in a country that unjustly takes its frustrations and fears — however well-founded they may be — out on an innocent minority. Neither did Martin Luther King.
Sean Moundas is a junior in Morse College. He is a co-founder of the Human Rights Watch Internship Action Committee at Yale and a member of Amnesty International.