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Extreme Xenophobia: Jeff Sessions and Syrian Refugees

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Photo by Ryan J. Reilly | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Ryan J. Reilly | CC BY 2.0

Despite the insufficient efforts of the United States government to provide solace for Syrian refugees,Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and many conservative politicians have played upon xenophobic sentiments to rally support against increasing the amount of refugees the U.S. currently takes in.

Since 9/11, we have permanently resettled approximately 1.5 million migrants from Muslim nations inside the U.S.  Ninety percent of recent refugees from the Middle East living in our country are receiving food stamps and approximately 70 percent are receiving free healthcare and cash welfare,” said U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Chairman of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest, in a press release responding to Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement in late 2015 of a slight increase in refugees the United States would take in.  “All of the nearly 200,000 refugees the Administration is planning to bring over the next two years would be entitled to these same benefits the moment they arrive.  Since we are running huge deficits, every penny of these billions in costs will have to be borrowed and added to the debt.  This refugee expansion would be in addition to the 1 million autopilot green cards handed out each year by the government to mostly low-wage migrants, including a large share from Middle Eastern nations.”

Senator Sessions claims are not only false, but represent incredibly xenophobic and Islamophobic misconceptions about the current refugees in the United States and the prospective ones from Syria. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-profit that advocates for immigration reduction, the amount of refugees resettled in the United States significantly declined after 9/11. The decline was, in part, due to the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001 and funding cuts of resettlement programs. The Obama administration replenished the funding to the program, and refugees admitted to the U.S. have bounced back to the ceiling of 70,000.

Senator Sessions claim that 1.5 million migrants from Muslims nations were resettled is misleading. Immigrants are classified differently from refugees and are not resettled by the U.S. government. Due to the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996, immigrants are not eligible for any welfare programs for at least five years. According to a study conducted by the CATO Institute, the 40 million immigrants currently in the United States use public benefits at rates lower than native-born citizens. People come to the United States to take advantage of the opportunities provided here, not the government assistance programs. Mr. Sessions usage of this statistic is subtly veiled Islamophobia, generalizing all Arabs as Muslim when in fact, two-thirds of Arab Americans are Christian.

The U.S. government deficit has been decreasing under President Obama’s administration and there isn’t any evidence to suggest taking in more refugees would negatively impact it. Since President Obama took office, the government deficit has decreased by two-thirds. The excuse that the richest country in the world can’t financially afford assisting the moral obligation of providing Syrian refugees with a safe haven has no bearing.

Senator Sessions added that instead of the United States taking in refugees, they should be diverted to other Middle Eastern countries. Countries in the Middle East have been taking most of Syria’s refugees, despite not having the resources the United States has to help them; 1.8 million have fled to Turkey, 1 million to Lebanon, and 600,000 to Jordan. Millions of refugeesare fleeing Syria daily, and the estimated numbers to be resettled in the United States are merely a small fraction that insufficiently helps the world’s largest refugee crisis on record.

The portrayal that all refugees will be a drain on food stamps, healthcare, and welfare programs has no basis. Refugees pay taxes. Their travel costs are repaid to the U.S. government through a zero interest loan to help them get on their feet once resettled, where they become upstanding contributors to American society. The use of welfare funds to assist them are only on a short-term basisRefugees utilize the opportunities in America to become important contributors to society. Albert Einstein came to the United States as a refugee to escape the Nazis, as did the 2013 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry Martin Kaplaus.

Albert Einstein was a refugee that came to the United States to escape the Nazis. The 2013 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, Martin Kaplaus, also resettled in the U.S. as a refugee at 8 years old. Other famous refugees include former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, and Grammy nominated musician Regina Spektor. There is no evidence to suggest that refugeesdrain the systems or don’t contribute to the communities they are resettled in.

“I was fortunate to reach a refugee camp in northern Kenya where I lived for seven years on one meal a day until the U.S. Congress introduced a program to settle 3,000 South Sudanese boys to the United States. I was among the first to be settled here in 2000,” writes Sudanese Refugee John Ajak on the Department of the Interior’s website, where he now works as a Petroleum Engineer after earning his Master’s in Engineering Management at George Washington University. “CBS News named us the “Lost Boys of Sudan.” We were accustomed to surviving to see the next day, not the future. I was 16 when I settled with a family in Souderton, Penn. For these reasons, I feel fortunate to be giving back to the American public through the Department of the Interior’s mission.”

The fear of terrorism does not excuse America’s moral obligation and role as a global leader to take in more Syrian refugees. In order for other countries to do more, the United States needs to help lead in resettling refugees. Monetary aid is not enough; we should embrace the opportunity to integrate some of Syria’s refugees into our communities. The United States is a country of immigrants, which is what makes America such a great country, because of its diversity and culmination of different cultures. People have come to America for hundreds of years. A 443 page study published in September 2015  by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine analyzed the assimilation of immigrants in the past twenty years and found that common xenophobic assumptions are all untrue.

“The United States prides itself on being a nation of immigrants, and the country has a long history of successfully absorbing people from across the globe,” wrote the leading author of the study, Harvard Sociologist Mary Waters. “The integration of immigrants and their children contributes to our economic vitality and our vibrant and ever changing culture. We have offered opportunities to immigrants and their children to better themselves and to be fully incorporated into our society and in exchange immigrants have become Americans – embracing an American identity and citizenship, protecting our country through service in our military, fostering technological innovation, harvesting its crops, and enriching everything from the nation’s cuisine to its universities, music, and art.”

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Michael Sainato’s writing has appeared in the Guardian, Miami Herald, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, Buffalo News, the Hill, Alternet, and several other publications . Follow him on twitter: @MSainat1

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