The American Dream

I come from two big families so there are far too many of us to celebrate every birthday individually; instead, we lump them all together by month.   The September family birthday party is always the largest.  Last year, between toys for my younger cousins, cards for my aunts and uncles, and cake and ice cream for everyone, my extended family asked about my work with refugees.

It was immediately clear that while I have one perspective about refugees specifically and immigrants more generally, most of my extended family has a very different perspective.  Where I see cultural and economic benefit, they see potential terrorism.  I became defensive and then aggressive – I answered their questions in haste and missed an opportunity to tell my family about the work that I do and why I believe it should be done.

Generally, a refugee is exactly what the popular conception suggests: someone fleeing from warfare.  Legally, for the purposes of immigration to the United States, the definition of a refugee is more precise.  To paraphrase and simplify, a refugee is someone who flees his or her country of nationality because of persecution, or fear of persecution, for at least one of five reasons: race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.  There are more than ten million refugees worldwide, though it is not a static population.

It is my job to help a refugee explain his or her story, and in particular his or her fear of persecution, which I then record so that an immigration officer can determine the legitimacy of the applicant’s request for refugee status in the United States.  The stories, as expected, are often obscene.  It is unbelievable what people will tolerate before they are willing to make the traumatic and fearful choice to flee home for something unknown.  Most don’t go far, largely because they don’t want to go far.  They cross the nearest international border for immediate safety, then hover there hoping that soon enough they will be able to return.  Years and even decades later, many find they are still hovering in that limbo.

It is this type of refugee that typically is resettled to the United States.  They are people who have been warehoused in refugee camps, people for whom there is no durable solution to their displacement, people who cannot repatriate and who are not allowed any substantive local integration in their country of first asylum.  They are registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, vetted by the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, & Migration, and finally approved for resettlement by the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship & Immigration Service.  Their names are checked and their fingerprints are scanned.  Of more than ten million refugees worldwide, it is about 50,000 who are resettled to the United States, in a good year.

Once in the United States, most adult refugees are working within ninety days.  Most children are in school.  They pay their bills and their taxes, shop for groceries and clothing, and go to church or the mosque.  They buy a television, which they gather around at night to watch whatever is on.  They save to buy a car.  They are, just like the rest of us, normal.  After five years, they are eligible to become naturalized citizens.  At that point, the fact that they were not born in the United States does not make them any less American than anyone else.

The beauty of being American is that we’re not as easily defined as other nationalities.  We’re not this color and we’re not that religion.  We’re everyone and we’re no one.  Many foreign observers say that the one thing most Americans tend to be is optimistic.  We tend to believe that with a little effort and creative savvy, with enough entrepreneurial pluck, we can succeed.  Much of the world marvels at our optimism; they call us naïve.  It is our bravado, not our wealth, which makes much of the world dislike us.  By the standards of Europe, we’re young.  We swagger.

Refugees and other immigrants naturally embody this American spirit.  They come to the United States with nothing but their determination to work hard and rebuild.  They believe that if they do, they will grow and prosper.  With typical American optimism, they believe that each generation will be better off than the last – their children will be better off than them and their grandchildren better off than their children.  This vitality is exactly why the United States needs its immigrants.  America is not white and it is not Christian; America is optimistic.  Immigrants, with all of their many and varied American Dreams, should not be feared.  They should be embraced. 

This is what I should have told my family.