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Make America Great (By Welcoming Refugees) Again

Apr 03, 2017

Blog Post

Gabe Cahn, HIAS.org

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is the office within the Department of Homeland Security tasked with, among other things, processing asylum and refugee applications. 

Leon Rodriguez—the agency’s director from 2014-2017 and a former refugee helped by HIAS—recently penned an op-ed for Reuters firmly opposing President Trump's executive orders banning immigrants and refugees.

Rodriguez describes his involvement in vetting refugees:

As USCIS director, I watched officers in Washington, D.C., and out in the field conduct enhanced reviews of countless individuals and families who claimed they were victims of persecution and torture. For better or for worse, we did not give them these individuals the benefit of the doubt, and adverse intelligence used against them is seldom shared with them. The officers in my department, who are among the most highly trained professionals I have met in my 30-year career, asked question after question, time after time, of person after person, family after family. They used every resource at our disposal to verify the authenticity of their often heart wrenching stories. Capturing fingerprints, investigating social media accounts, and running additional database checks are all a part of this exhaustive work. Hundreds whose claims we did not find credible were denied.

I made it a priority to be involved with the USCIS refugee screening process on a daily basis. I met personally with individuals from the Muslim-majority countries now being targeted by the executive orders currently being debated in federal court. Among those I met were everyday people just trying to live their lives, including a baker, a teacher and a laborer, who had found themselves in dangerous, untenable situations. I came away from these face-to-face meetings convinced that they posed no threat to our country and in fact would make positive contributions to our American story.

Ultimately, he points out that “treating all Muslims as enemies becomes part of the narrative that nourishes radicalized groups,” and makes the case that the U.S. “should be doing much more (and certainly not less) to address the refugee crisis.”

Interestingly, Rodriguez’s op-ed is not the only piece authored by a former HIAS client to make the news over the past couple of weeks.

The Washington Post published an article by Architect Shalom Baranes entitled, “I came here as a refugee. And then I renovated the Pentagon.” Baranes, whose family was assisted by HIAS in the 1950’s after coming to New York from Libya by way of Tunisia and Italy, describes the process of becoming American and his highly successful architectural career in Washington, D.C.

“My proudest moment, though, was being chosen by the Department of Defense to lead the billion-dollar renovation of the Pentagon after the devastating 9/11 attacks,” he writes.

“Today, as I watch the news and see families struggling to leave their countries and escape tyranny, I wonder who among them will make it to our shores and become part of the next generation of researchers, teachers, inventors, real estate developers and, yes, architects,” Baranes continues.

Across the country in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, Bela Fishbeyn made an equally compelling and personal argument in favor of U.S. refugee assistance.

Fishbeyn is the executive managing editor of the American Journal of Bioethics at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics. In August 1991, she was a six year old child fleeing anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union. Her family was resettled by HIAS to North Carolina.

Recalling her memories from the time, she writes that, “most of all, I remember the kindness and generosity that so many people, so many communities, and so many organizations showed to me and my family.”

The Trump administration's repeated attempts to vilify refugees and asylum seekers has struck a chord with many Americans, and has prompted many who came to this country as refugees to come forward and tell their stories.

As these three personal essays clearly demonstrate, refugees are an asset to this country—not a liability. 

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