Make America great by welcoming refugees again

Tuesday, 28 March 2017 15:17 GMT

A family member sheds tears of joy as she greets Dahaba Matan (L), a refugee from Somalia, at the airport in Boise, Idaho, U.S. March 10, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Losness

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As the immediate past director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, President Trump's executive orders banning immigrants and refugees orders strike a chord

From federal court rulings, to unprecedented protests, and back to the courts for appeals, President Trump’s executive orders banning immigrants and refugees have ignited a political tug of war.

As an immigrant, the orders hit close to home; my family fled Cuba in 1961, seeking safety and freedom in the U.S., just as millions of refugees are today. As the immediate past director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), it strikes another chord. I know firsthand that there are already intensive measures in place to screen immigrants, refugees and asylees, and that President Trump’s call for "extreme vetting" will ultimately make life in the U.S. more dangerous.

It is hard to imagine what could meaningfully "improve the screening and…procedures associated with the…United States Refugee Admissions Program," as President Trump’s executive order describes. That program, which federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland just temporarily reactivated in opposition to Trump’s order, relies on cutting-edge technology and the expertise of federal agents whom I personally oversaw.

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.

Like all refugees hoping to be resettled in the United States, those individuals had previously been vetted over the course of several years by the multiple law enforcement and intelligence units with which the USCIS partners. Thousands of cases are screened out before they ever reach a USCIS officer.

The further back you trace a refugee's story through the United States Refugee Admissions Program, the more security hurdles you’ll see that individual has gone through in order to ensure our national security. For our government to now pursue an indefinite ban on entry of nationals of certain Muslim countries will make our security problems worse both at home and abroad.

As a number of national security experts have noted, treating all Muslims as enemies becomes part of the narrative that nourishes radicalized groups. Moreover, the failure to address the problem raised by displaced and traumatized populations risks creating global instability. The civilized world risks much when it stands by idly and abandons innocent people to a life without hope of stable housing, education, employment or other means of subsistence. The United States should be doing much more (and certainly not less) to address the refugee crisis.

Fortunately, not all of America has signed on to the administration’s abandonment of our history and values as a nation of immigrants. We can be proud of civil liberties organizations and even refugee groups that for the first time, are fighting federal lawsuits challenging the executive orders. HIAS, a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the second executive order in a federal court in Maryland, is the very organization that helped my own family as we left Cuba to seek refuge from the dictatorship that ruled the country. The existential fears were as great, if not greater, then as they are now. The United States faced a possible nuclear war launched from this Soviet satellite less than 100 miles from the Florida coast. Yet this country that became my family’s home was brave enough as a nation to confront these fears and show leadership both to our own people and to the entire world.

We did this by welcoming refugees.

We can and must be that great again. 

Leon Rodriguez was director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Department of Homeland Security from July 2014 until January 20, 2017.