Why We Can Accept Afghan Refugees, and Should

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A day after U.S. forces completed its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, refugees board a bus taking them to a processing center upon their arrival at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va., September 1, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Hospitable generosity represents the best of what American culture and values are about.

If you don’t imbibe the noxious prattle-on-demand that calls itself cable television “news,” you might not realize that a crew of pundits and talking heads has spent much of the last few weeks warning that the fall of Kabul to the Taliban will mean an invasive flood of Afghan refugees pouring into our streets, ravaging our daughters, and imposing sharia law on our cul-de-sacs and HOAs.

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Never mind that those refugees are running from the imposition of an especially brutal form of sharia law, or that to fight a terrorist cell, we invaded their country two decades ago, and some of them helped us do it.

Never mind that the people wanting out of their country are so desperate to leave that they flooded the Kabul airport, sent children on ahead, and clung to the bottom of departing C-17 military planes.

Never mind that some of them — the ones who’d been on our payroll, mostly — may now be killed for the crime of taking a paycheck.

Forget all of that. Because neither common sense nor compassion gets anywhere near the ratings to be had by whipping people into frenzies with appeals to a paradox of exceptionalist patriotism that sows fear in place of national confidence.

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Watch pundits cash checks while American communities and dinner tables become combat zones. Over issue after issue. We keep falling for it.

It was pitiful when we allowed vacuous commentators and ambitious would-be politicians to turn a pandemic into an American civil war.

It is pathetic that we allow them to turn us against our parents, children, and neighbors, like clockwork every four years, imagining that fighting over electoral politics is more important than building lasting social bonds with the people who actually share our lives.

But it would be tragic if we let those same voices consign men, women, and children to violence and oppression at the hands of the gang of Central Asian thugs who just chased us from our embassy in Kabul, or to languishing in makeshift refugee camps with no meaningful educational or economic opportunities.

Especially when we don’t have to.

Considerable ink has already been spilled in a debate over whether the United States has a moral obligation to broaden categories for Afghan refugee resettlement. There are convincing arguments that we do. But “obligation” might be the wrong way to look at things. Obligations are burdens; generosity is a gift.

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When it comes to exiled refugees, America should be generous.

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Why?

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Because we can. And because hospitable generosity represents the best of what American culture and values are about.

We know this, in part, because we’ve already been doing it. The United States has spent the past 70 years resettling refugees from suffering and disrupted places around the world, more than 3 million of them just since 1975. We have real examples of refugee families becoming meaningful contributors to our social and economic fabric.

We’ve seen it in places like Nebraska, where, beginning with Vietnamese families after the end of America’s war in Vietnam, refugees have become essential parts of their communities, particularly in the state’s Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, contentions that refugees are in the United States to commit crimes, take American jobs, or mooch off public services just don’t stand up to the facts. Refugee resettlement is not correlated with increased crime rates in the U.S., and refugees, who tend to find work soon after resettling in the United States, do not adversely affect the U.S. labor market. The facts don’t support opposition to refugee resettlement.

Still, some pundits are convinced that Afghan refugees are categorically different from others, because they will not be sufficiently vetted, and because their culture is entirely alien to American values.

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On vetting, the facts are clear. Afghans who enter the U.S. do so after they’re biometrically and biographically screened, a process aimed at keeping terrorists and suspected terrorists out of the U.S. Vetting can’t be expected to do more than that, and the refugee-vetting procedures used now do more than at any other point in U.S. history. There is no perfect system, but the risk is limited, and the need is real. As a weighing exercise, the U.S. has always been at its best when it sides with real needs over perceived risks.

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The argument that Afghans don’t share American culture is interesting. It’s true that our failure to appreciate that probably led to the folly of our 20 years of nation-building in Central Asia. But with refugee resettlement, American culture has the home-team advantage. And our pop culture is our strongest export: No one with experience watching television should have any doubt that within a couple of years, most Afghan-refugee families will be eating Popeyes spicy-chicken sandwiches, streaming New Girl, texting emojis, and Instagramming everything, just like the rest of us.

They may arrive with no concept of liberty, as some pundits warn, but few can resist the siren songs of cheap consumer credit and Uber Eats. For better or worse, they have an extraordinary leveling effect.

I’m convinced that American pop culture is far more transformative than we give it credit for. It’s also anemic and mostly vapid. The real gift Americans can offer to refugees displaced from their homes and their country is an invitation into the authentic and substantive expressions of humanity found in American communities: into our churches, our barbecues, our friendship. In short, to invite them into places and relationships we’ve missed most in the last 18 months of pandemic living.

Generations of resettled refugees and immigrants past are a demonstration that such a vision is not Pollyannish; it’s just the ordinary course of American life. The difference between now and then is the merchants of fear who’ve taught us that wherever outsiders come from, they oughtn’t be trusted. That kind of paranoia is neither an American value, nor a conservative one.

For Christian Americans, there is another compelling argument in favor of generous refugee resettlement: The Lord expects it. Pope St. John Paul II put it this way: “The spirit of solidarity clearly reveals the unacceptable fact that millions of refugees live in inhuman conditions. In particular, the citizens and institutions of democratic and economically developed States cannot remain indifferent in the face of such a tragic situation. Inaction or a meager commitment on the part of these States would blatantly contradict the principles that they rightly consider the basis of their culture, established on the equal dignity of every human person.”

Jesus put it more simply: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”

It is true that the ideal situation would be the safe and peaceful repatriation of Afghanistan’s refugees. That option is rather obviously off the table, at least for now. It is also true that Afghanistan’s neighbors should do as much as they can to resettle refugees in dignified situations. It is true they bear the most immediate moral obligation. But if they fail to meet that obligation, the United States has the capacity to be generous. And we should.

In 1987, John Paul II encouraged Americans to take stock of our greatness. His challenge was not the alarmism of the pundits, but an appeal to our dignity and virtue.

“Your greatest beauty and your richest blessing is found in the human person: in each man, woman and child, in every immigrant, in every native-born son and daughter,” he said.

“America, your deepest identity and truest character as a nation is revealed in the position you take towards the human person. The ultimate test of your greatness in the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenseless ones.”

The pope included “feeding the poor and welcoming refugees” in the retinue of challenges he gave to America.

John Paul II’s voice is worth listening to, rather than the chatter of the talking heads and fear-mongers. Generosity — our goodness — is the wise path to America’s greatness.

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