Attitudes toward refugees in the US remain polarized

Larisa Karr

Managing Editor

In a country that has seen multiple anti-immigrant bans issued in 2017 alone, sentiment toward this issue remains hotly contested among the American public.

Peter Brimelow is the founder of the webzine VDARE, which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Immigration depresses wages, causes sprawl, imports crime via some but not all groups and generally makes Americans’ lives miserable,” Brimelow said via email.

Others like Jeffrey Walden, a physician who runs the Refugee and Immigration Clinic at Cone Health Family Medicine Center in Greensboro, said these types of feelings in the U.S. are nothing new.

“There have always been people who have been anti-immigrants. You look at our history and there’s always been people who’ve said, ‘We’re here now. No one else should come over,’” Walden said. “They’ve never really been in levels of power like we see now or at least pandering to them the way they have. It’s not a problem that’s going away anytime soon.”

According to Walden, it was not always like this.

“The refugee program has always been one of the most accepted bipartisan programs in history,” Walden said. “The most refugees we ever took in was under Reagan at 200,000 a year.”

Marsha Hirsh, executive director of the Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency, said she hopes the situation stabilizes.

Hirsh said the change from 70,000 to 45,000 is significant, but it could be zero.

“If things can maintain themselves under those current circumstances, then I guess I would have to be satisfied with that,” Hirsh said. “It would be very, very unfortunate if they continued to reduce the numbers in the coming years, but it is the prerogative of the President to determine the refugee arrival numbers.”

Glenn Spencer is the president of American Border Patrol, an organization that monitors the America-Mexico border by solar-powered drones.

“I believe that we really need to emphasize that we want to be as humane and helpful as possible but there are better ways to do that than bringing in people into this country who themselves are oftentimes unable to assimilate and unable to learn the language,” Spencer said. “I would believe that we’re now seeing a more intelligent, rational approach being employed by President Trump than the more emotional, irrational approach that we’ve seen for the last few decades.”

Earlier this month, Trump decided to pull out of the U.N. Migrant and Refugee Compact, which helps protect the safety of refugees and immigrants by enlisting global cooperation.

Nikki Haley, U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N., issued a statement on Dec. 2 saying the compact “contains numerous provisions that are inconsistent with U.S. immigration and refugee policies and the Trump administration’s principles.”

Ann Corcoran, a blogger and activist who founded Refugee Resettlement Watch, said Trump could be doing more.

“The present system as set up by the Refugee Act of 1980 must be abolished and if we want to bring refugees permanently to America a new system must be created by Congress. I had hopes that President Trump would halt the program completely and force Congress to reform it,” Corcoran said. “Just reducing numbers for a few years and limiting what countries can send refugees will not bring about reform.”

The change in American attitude and its policies toward refugees and immigrants has made the resettlement process especially difficult for those individuals who have started the process to come to the U.S. already.

“What people don’t realize with each of these bans is that they’re redoing a lot of security measures for each one,” Walden said. “This means that the old security processes don’t work anymore, so everyone’s going to have to get revetted, which means they’re all going to get pushed that much further in the future.”

Corcoran speaks out avidly against the refugee resettlement agencies, she said the process whereby they are let into the country is not effective.

“If we are going to be bringing thousands of impoverished people for permanent resettlement, then the resettlement agencies better take care of them, not just dump them on welfare and go on to the next bunch of paying clients,” Corcoran said. “The nine major agencies are paid by the head to place refugees in towns with little notice to the public.”

Walden said it is not a commonly-known fact the nine primary agencies resettling refugees are not paid a set figure.

“What people don’t realize is that the resettlement agencies, those who do everything from picking up the refugees at the airport to furnishing their homes to driving them to find occupational training or taking them to my clinic to be seen or the health department to be screened for infectious diseases, the resettlement agencies that do all the grunt work, only get paid per refugee that arrives,” Walden said. “So, when you drastically cut the refugees who come, you’re cutting the funding for the resettlement agencies to help those who are already here.”   

Rick Martin is a conservative activist who has spearheaded a campaign in his Idaho hometown to end the refugee resettlement program. He said he began the campaign when the State Department issued a dispatch that there was a possibility of Syrian refugees being located to Twin Falls.

“There are people from many Middle Eastern countries that are coming to the country of Syria in the hopes of getting the classification as a refugee from Syria because the United Nations program that runs the camps for refugees and the U.S. itself has put a priority on Syrians,” Martin said. “There’s a good chance that most of the people, if not a percentage of them, that are coming to Syria aren’t even Syrians and very well could be terrorists from other countries.”

Hirsh said the vetting process that refugees go through in order to come to the United States is very thorough.

“There’s been millions of refugees that have been brought into this country in the last 30 years and they’ve all been through a very rigorous screening process,” Hirsh said. “They’re walked through a very specific set of requirements and guidelines for their resettlement period.”

Walden said when refugees get to the United States, everything does not necessarily get better from that point. Oftentimes, they are dealing with a lot of health-related issues because of the situations they faced in their home countries.

“They have mental health concerns, like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder,” Walden said. “They can often fall into substance abuse patterns.”

He said he noticed refugee patients coming from the Middle East usually received some form of healthcare in the past, but commonly patients from Africa and Southeast Asia to have never seen a doctor before except when they gave birth.

Walden started the clinic because he wanted medical student residents to have the opportunity to learn about global health issues, something they may not have been able to encounter otherwise.

“It’s much harder for residents to find funding to travel overseas and so I wanted them to have the ability to experience some of the global health problems, social determinants of health like poverty, lack of literacy, being an excluded or marginalized group,” Walden said. “I wanted them to kind of experience a lot of this firsthand but never have to worry about leaving Greensboro.”

He said the first family his clinic helped in December 2014, who came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been in a situation typical for many refugee families.

“They had been living under plastic and tarps and sticks and they were the very first family we had,” Walden said. “That’s kind of indicative of a lot of patients that we see and so you can kind of imagine the culture shock of coming to a new country and coming to the United States when you’ve basically lived under a tarp for 14 years of your life.”

Hirsh said the best part of her job at the CRRA is working with refugee youth and then watching them become more familiar with American culture.

“They start going to school, oftentimes they’ll try to earn their GEDs or they’ll enroll in the community college,” Hirsh said. “They’ll come by the office and visit us after six or nine months of being here and show us their new car and they’re doing amazing things in a very, very short period of time and so they immediately begin engaging.”

As to the anti-immigrant sentiment which is sweeping over the country, Hirsh raised a question.

“Why? What is the concern that they have? What are the specific reasons not to have refugee resettlement? I never can quite hear a specific reason,” Hirsh said. “There’s been a policy change but when you’re meeting people from different parts of the world and seeing all of the personal fortitude they have to try to re-establish themselves here in the United States, what reason would there be not to assist some people that are living in danger throughout the world?”

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