Refugees aboard the MS St. Louis as they arrive in Belgium, 1939.
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
comment / justice

When People Flee to America’s Shores

We are a nation of immigrants and refugees. Yet we always fear who is coming next.
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Again and again, when faced with the question of refugees and immigrants, Americans are ambivalent and sometimes hostile. In 1975, for example, 62 percent said they feared Vietnamese refugees would take their jobs. Four years later, just as many said they didn’t want to admit “boat people” from Vietnam, who were fleeing the country’s repressive communist government. Americans said the same for Cuban refugees in the 1980s, Haitians in the 1990s, and most recently, the wave of refugee children from South America, which brought protests and fears of disease and infection.
 
The broad point—the reason to focus on these patterns of hostility—is to emphasize the extent to which they are part of the American tradition. In calling for acceptance of Syrian refugees, President Obama, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Conference of Catholic Bishops, and others are voicing one set of American values—the ones we want to hold ourselves to. But the same goes for Sen. Ted Cruz, Gov. Greg Abbott, and the other Republican governors and presidential candidates who want to reject them—those too are American values.

The question of the refugees isn’t if we’ll honor our values; it’s which ones we’ll choose. Will we embrace our heritage of inclusion or reject it for nativism? Will we be a country of actual open arms or one where our rhetoric is in recurring contrast to our actions?
 
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