Immigration policy remains the final frontier where discrimination is accepted, and often expected, by a national population. This impulse to prejudice discrete groups of people rests awkwardly in North Carolina against notions of generosity and acceptance of the most vulnerable.
President Trump’s executive order suspending the entry of nationals from seven mostly Muslim nations and suspending the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program has brought this tension to the forefront of civic debate and political discussion. After public demonstrations, legal challenges, and several judicial decisions staying the order, another, less legally vulnerable order is in the works.
As a scholar of migration and an American, I have watched the proclamation and implementation of this policy initiative with dismay. The executive order clearly shows the power of the United States but it does not demonstrate strength – the strength of our values and ideals.
Singling out of these classes of people is deeply troubling in an already turbulent world. It is dubious whether it will provide the security it is said to deliver, especially in regard to the refugee program.
The targeting of refugees is particularly worrisome because there is an international legal framework to which the United States is a party (1967 Protocol Related to the Status of Refugees) and which we have codified into U.S. law (1980 Refugee Act).
Today, fears are likely stoked because of an unfamiliarity with the process. To be designated as a refugee, a child or adult must cross an international border, find their way to a U.N.-sanctioned refugee camp, supply identification and following verification be classified by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees as in fact a refugee. One can only attain this designation if this child would be persecuted for their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular group upon return to her home country. In U.S. law, there is another path to achieving the status of refugee, known as “special humanitarian concern,” and tends to be applied to groups subject to consequences from U.S. policy decisions, such as Cubans and Central Americans. During the initial sorting by the U.N., certain individuals and families are chosen to go to the United States. From there, different federal departments (State, Homeland Security, etc.) conduct background and security checks, a process lasting at least 18 months. The system is secure and safe.
Many North Carolinians may be surprised to learn that our communities have played an important role in providing refuge and opportunity to some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. Faith and lay leaders, religious groups and non-governmental organizations, and concerned citizens have answered the call. As a result, the state has received nearly 12,000 resettled refugees since Oct. 1, 2012, from which only 845 are Syrians. North Carolina ranks 12th and ninth in the nation in both categories. Our generosity is clear, and we have much to be proud of. Yet, these efforts stand in stark contrast to the craven politics practiced by some elected officials.
The issue for me thus is an existential one. It’s a question of conscience, a question of community, a question of the type of world in which we want to raise our children. Many North Carolinians view ourselves as a generous people. Indeed we are in many ways. Yet the recent past has shown us that many elected officials have little compunction in passing laws that negatively affect vulnerable communities and directly target minority groups.
Evidence, however, reveals that refugees integrate into labor markets and become productive members of their local societies. Furthermore, these refugees are important members of local communities who are not a burden but embrace the values we hold dear, grow our economy, and enrich our society.
For North Carolinians, we need to embrace the words of Emma Lazarus and continue putting into practice her declaration that our nation is the mother of exiles providing succor to the poor and the tired and opportunity to the “huddled masses yearning to be free.”
Steven Hyland Jr. is an assistant professor in the department of history and political science at Wingate University.