Refugees and Obama's American values

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Dec 9 16:50:39 UTC 2008

Refugees and Obama's American values


When President-elect Barack Obama announced his foreign policy team on
Dec. 1, he listed four "American values" that his government will
pursue: "Democracy and justice; opportunity and unyielding hope --
because American values are America's greatest export to the world."
All that was part of Obama's campaign promise to restore American
moral standing abroad. Right now, it's still just words. It's time to
ask what kind of nuts and bolts policies actually would put those
values into action.

Clearly, as Obama reiterated after the election, the first step must
be to undo the long list of abuses that have tarnished our national
honor -- aggressive war, Guantanamo, officially sanctioned torture and
so on. But that's just playing defense, trying to remedy our past
wrongs and lessen our sense of shame.

Obama is promising to go further -- to export opportunity and hope as
well. And that is why, as president, Obama will have good reason to
look at U.S. refugee policy and to make it a centerpiece of his
international agenda.

In European elections, rising xenophobia leads politicians to compete
to show their hostility to asylum seekers. But Americans are supposed
to be different. As Obama told Europeans in Berlin in July, "Our
allegiance has never been to any particular tribe or kingdom --
indeed, every language is spoken in our country; every culture has
left its imprint on ours."

But in recent decades, we have neglected that part of our heritage.
That is why Obama has an opening. He needs to restore our country's
moral standing, and American refugee policy is in dire need of

In 1980, we invited 200,000 refugees to our shores, but that figure
has since declined by a startling 80 percent. Effective control of the
U.S. refugee program is split between the United Nations, a few
private organizations and two different federal departments.

In a world with 16 million refugees, this Byzantine system somehow
fails year after year to find enough refugees to fill a meager
resettlement quota of 70,000. The U.S. refugee program has atrophied
so badly that in October the State Department expressed pride that it
had managed to come just 10,000 refugees short of its target, which
was nevertheless its best performance in years.

It need not be that way. Granting refuge to the persecuted can
mobilize Americans across partisan and religious divides. With four
practical steps, Obama quickly can turn a declining government program
into a bold American initiative on the world stage.

Increase our refugee quota. The quota for immigrants coming to work is
currently at least 140,000 per year -- double the refugee quota. If we
can invite an immigrant to our shores to earn money, can't we also let
someone come to find freedom?

Let average Americans sponsor refugees who want to come to the United
States. Canada and Australia already do that. While the federal
government should retain final say on issuing visas, we should unleash
the potential for private citizens to energize our national mission

Establish a U.S. Refugee Corps to recruit young American professionals
to go around the world and be the face of our refugee program. The new
Refugee Corps should streamline bureaucracy to process applications
that today languish in red tape.

Do it all with high-profile presidential leadership. Our open door can
again be a source of pride for the U.S., hope for the oppressed and a
golden chance to lead others by example.

Michael Kagan, from Port Ludlow, is policy director of the U.S.-based
international refugee rights group Asylum Access.

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