By Charles Bernsen
Stephanie Teatro can run through all the arguments in favor of an aggressive U.S. refugee resettlement program: Because they undergo such a rigorous medical and security vetting process, refugees pose almost no risk of terrorism or other crimes. Resourceful and resilient, they are 10 times more likely to start small businesses.
And of course there’s the moral argument: These are people who have been forced to leave their homelands to escape war, persecution or natural disaster. Without help, many of them will die.
“So how did we get to this moment – the shutdown of the U.S. refugee program in the middle of a global refugee crisis?” Teatro asked during a communitywide forum – “Refugees: Straight Talk” – on Thursday, March 9 at West End Synagogue.
About 200 people attended the forum, which included a panel discussion and question-and-answer session featuring Teatro, co-executive director of Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition; Greg Siskind, one of the nation’s most prominent immigration lawyers; Kellye Branson, director of refugee and immigration services for Catholic Charities of Tennessee, and two refugees who have resettled in Nashville, Shenwar Hussein and Hinda Ahmed.
The forum was scheduled in October, said Judith Saks, a member of the synagogue’s Social Action Committee, which sponsored the event. So it was coincidental that it occurred just three days after President Donald Trump’s administration issued a revised executive order banning all refugees for 120 days and those from Syria indefinitely. The order also bans immigration for 90 days from six predominately Muslim countries.
Even before the ban, the United States had been admitting only an average of about 110,000 refugees annually over the past 30 years, said Siskind, a former West End member whose practice is now based in Memphis. Historically, there have been periods when refugee resettlement was higher, both in real numbers and proportionately, he said, noting that in 1948 the United States resettled about 140,000 Holocaust survivors.
Nashville resettles about 1,200 refugees a year, or about 85 percent of the total in the entire state, and Branson said she is “very proud to live in a city that is so welcoming.” But with the U.S. program on hold, she said Catholic Charities was forced to lay off 11 staff members in its refugee and immigration services. And while the temporary ban is for four months, she fears it will create a logjam in the complicated resettlement process that will last much longer.
While the U.S. refugee program has reached a crisis with the election of Donald Trump, Teatro traced the effort to undermine it legislatively to 2011, when Tennessee passed a law giving cities the right to refuse to accept refugees being resettled by non-profit agencies like Catholic Charities. She said she suspects the current pause is the beginning of a similar resistance at the federal level.
The panelists cited a number of factors contributing to the rising anti-refugee sentiment: widespread economic anxiety, the public conflation of legal refugees and undocumented immigrants, and the changing demographic of refugees, a greater proportion of whom come from Africa and the Middle East than a decade ago.
Like the panel, the audience was largely in support of the refugee program, and the moderator, Vice Mayor David Briley, asked them to suggest what individuals might do to support refugees and resettlement programs.
Aside from donating money or volunteering, Branson said the best thing would be “to become friends with one of our clients.”
Likewise, Teatro said most ardent opponents of the refugee program have never met a refugee. The best way to change attitudes, she said is through “personal interaction.”
Both Hussein, a Kurdish Iraqi who resettled in Nashville six years ago with his wife and children, and Ahmed, a Somalian who resettled here three years ago with her sister, agreed.
For those who are struggling to adjust in a strange place, “a smile means a lot,” Hussein said. •