Refugees can help Iowa grow, prosper

Mushabah Alfani and tutor Alice McCabe, both of Cedar Rapids, find Morocco on a world map during a language lesson at the Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. Alfani fled the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Congolese Civil Wars and was at a refugee camp in Zambia for several years before being settled in Columbus, Ohio, as a refugee. He moved to Cedar Rapids in 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

If the United States hadn’t admitted my refugee parents in 1937, my family wouldn’t be alive now.

So it means a lot to me that since 1980, the United States has saved 3 million more refugees from war and persecution and led the world in refugee relief. But I’m troubled by America’s current wave of negativity about refugees.

When I remember my parents and their largely refugee friends, I remember their intense engagement with their new country. They were in love with it, puzzled by it, and passionately grateful for being lifted out of the hell that their former homelands had turned into. Were they made-to-order middle Americans? Not exactly. They complained about everything from ice in drinks to electric guitars. Some couldn’t get used to hearing English at home. But they were patriot refugees to their bones. Why should we think any less of today’s refugees?

Today, 80 years after my old folks arrived, it’s on us to confront another peak refugee year.

Since 2013, world refugee numbers have grown by 50 percent, with Iraq, Syria, and sub-Saharan Africa forcing out especially numerous and ravaged populations, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. About 17 million men, women, and children have no place to go.

Think about it: that’s as if the combined population of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston had no place under the sun.


As a member of a refugee family, I’m ashamed to see Americans talk about refugees with uninformed hostility. And even more ashamed to see the president doing so. It’s time to straighten out some wrong ideas about refugees.

Some people seem to imagine our country is getting inundated. They have the story backward:

By State Department and UNHCR rules, about 1 million people are eligible for resettlement. Of of that number, about 28,000 refugees have been resettled in the U.S., far less than in 2016, according to U.S. State Department data.

If the number of refugees worldwide remains the same as in 2016, and if few refugees enter the United States for the rest of this year, the U.S. is on track to accept 0.2 percent of the world’s refugee population — far less than the historic average of 0.6 percent, and lower even than the share admitted in 2001 and 2002, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to the Pew Research Center.

What a puny response. And are we rallying to the need now? Just the opposite.

President Donald Trump already has signed an executive order to reduce the ceiling by more than half. His administration announced it will admit only 45,000 next year — the lowest cap since Congress passed the Refugee Act in 1980.


What have refugees done to deserve a slammed door?

Some people seem to think the word “refugees” refers to unsanctioned flows like border-jumpers, boat people or unaccompanied minors. Other people confuse refugees with asylum-seekers or political expatriates.

In reality, refugee immigration is a completely different matter. Refugees are a separate administrative category. People requesting refugee status are interviewed and vetted carefully and — to their distress — very slowly, at U.S. embassies, in many countries.

Some people seem to think refugees become drifters and moochers. That, too, is wrong. We can be proud that in the U.S., refugees usually arrive into communities able to orient them and integrate them.


The International Organization for Migration and U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement work with U.S. based voluntary agencies such as the International Rescue Committee or Church World Service to resettle refugees within the United States.

These voluntary agencies have offices across the nation, dispersing refugees across many states.

Once refugees are resettled, local nonprofits, such as ethnic associations and church-based groups, help them learn English and acquire job skills.

After several months, financial assistance from federal agencies stops and refugees are expected to be financially self-sufficient.

In a short period of time, most refugee households have employed members.

Some people think refugees bring terrorism. I haven’t found crime or terror statistic reports that distinguish the rather small category of refugees from the mixed population of immigrants, but it’s worth noting that the 2014 Secure Communities program, a George W. Bush-era program that recently was reactivated by Trump, led to detention of more than a quarter million immigrants with no observable effect on the crime rate.

Let’s jettison nonsense about refugees. If Iowa’s legislators, congressional representatives and senators seriously want to grow our population of ambitious, grateful citizens, one thing they ought to do right away is expand refugee opportunities. It’s useful. And it would do the country honor.

• Frank Salomon is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin. He lives in Iowa City and continues his research about the Andean countries. His new book is “At the Mountains’ Altar.”