Thoughts on Immigrants, Refugees, and Fear

Aerial view of Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan (Wikipedia).
Aerial view of Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan (Wikipedia).

I’ve been following a lot of the stories about the refugee crisis in Europe. Obviously it’s a very different situation from the American debates over illegal immigration, but some important parallels have shaped my views on both issues.

I do not believe that most opposition to illegal immigration in the United States is born out of bigotry or hatred. It comes from fear. It comes from security fears (we don’t know who is coming across the border), and it comes from cultural fears (we don’t know how the influx of illegal immigrants–people who are poorer, less educated, and speak a different language–will change our culture and nation).

These fears are often exaggerated. Take the fact that Korans and prayer rugs are allegedly being found along the border.1 This is one of those things that may sound vaguely ominous, but only until you actually start to think about it. First of all: why would terrorists sneaking into the country carry prayer rugs and Korans in the first place? That doesn’t seem very sneaky. Second, why would they then discard these items right along the border? Not only is that not sneaky, but it’s also just nonsensical. The whole thing is rather silly, upon farther reflection.2

But underneath the paranoia there is the reality that we have a porous border with a violent and sometimes unstable neighbor on the other side of it. That is a risk. So is the risk of large groups of immigrants deciding not to integrate. Although, on that latter piece, you have to think that being constantly threatened with mass deportation might play a pretty big role in the failure of integration, right?

Still, eight or ten years ago you would have found me talking about securing the border first and then mumbling about the importance of law and order. It took some fairly strong statements from the leaders of my Church to get me to change my stance on the issue.3 Once I did, however, I came to see my prior position as being one of fear by default. When in doubt: go with fear.

That happens to be the subject of a new essay by Marilynne Robinson, author of the incredibly powerful novel Gilead4. Her piece in the New York Review of Books is titled simply: Fear.

“America, she begins, “is a Christian country.”

Now, I have to take a brief digression to point out that this statement is indeed shocking from any publication with “New York” in the title, but Robinson quickly allays liberal concerns:

This is true in a number of senses. Most people, if asked, will identify themselves as Christian, which may mean only that they aren’t something else. Non-Christians will say America is Christian, meaning that they feel somewhat apart from the majority culture. There are a large number of demographic Christians in North America because of our history of immigration from countries that are or were also Christian. We are identified in the world at large with this religion because some of us espouse it not only publicly but also vociferously. As a consequence, we carry a considerable responsibility for its good name in the world, though we seem not much inclined to consider the implications of this fact. If we did, some of us might think a little longer about associating the precious Lord with ignorance, intolerance, and belligerent nationalism.

Now, as much as I’m tempted to be cynical about only being allowed to suggest that America is a Christian nation in the context of condemning America, the fact is that Robinson is right. We do default to fear, and we have at least since 9/11. 5 Here she states why this is such a problem in the context of Christianity:

My thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind.

Robinson manages to avoid quoting the obvious verse, but I cannot. “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice,” writes Paul, “but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”6

Here’s the thing: it’s always easy to act like the good guy when you’re the one who has everything to lose. The dynamic is simple: whoever is on top is predisposed to oppose change and support the status quo because they already have it good.7 This is a universal tendency of human nature, and it explains everything from every day fights between older (bigger) and younger (smaller) siblings to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In that case, just to show how this works, Israel tends to behave much more responsibly, has rule of law, has protections in place for Arab citizens, and even has a strong domestic peace movement while Hamas indiscriminately launches rockets from school yards. It is easy to attribute the difference between the two to culture or religion, but the reality is that power is the simple, universal explanation for much of it. When you are on top, you care about stability and reputation and order. That means it is easy to talk, debate, deliberate, and do all of the other things that we associated with civilization. When you are on bottom, you care less about stability and reputation and more about fulfilling base needs. From that perspective change, chaos, and disorder look much more attractive.

If you want change, then you’re always going to be working against the interests of the powerful and comfortable. Always. This means that if you are one of the powerful and comfortable, you cannot work for positive change in the world without going against your own interests to at least some degree. If you are among the powerful and the comfortable, you cannot work for a better world without working for a world that is–for you, at least in the short-run–more risky.

This has powerful implications for Americans and especially for American Christians because–as much as our internal debates about social justice focus on incremental differences in privilege between different Americans–the reality is that all Americans are privileged relative to the rest of the world. We are, by any feasible international standard, the powerful and the comfortable. And that means that we if we are not willing to accept risks and face our fears, that we will never be able to be a force for good on the global scale. If fear is our guiding star, then we risk obstructing progress towards a brighter future.

This might be part of the reason Christ–who was so concerned with the treatment of society’s poor and vulnerable–was so opposed to fear. He knew that fear is the ingredient that turns otherwise decent people into passive oppressors. It’s not enough to be benign. You have to be actively engaged in facing your fears and in making sacrifices or you will remain part of the problem.

So that is the attitude that I think we need to apply not only in our policies dealing with illegal immigration here in the United States, but also with respect to the historical refugee crisis spreading from the Middle East into Europe right now.

Although the situations are certainly not identical, we’ve got essentially the same two fears at work. First, there is the fear that terrorists will slip in among the refugees.”The jihadists [ISIS] hope to flood the north African state with militiamen from Syria and Iraq,” says an article from the Telegraph, “who will then sail across the Mediterranean posing as migrants… The fighters would then run amok in southern European cities and also try to attack maritime shipping.”

Second there’s the fear that–even without any intentional aggression–the culture and infrastructure of Western democracies will be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of incoming immigrants. Thus Buchanan adds numbers upon numbers in contemplating the potential horde that could sweep into Europe:

For the scores of thousands of Syrians in the Balkans, Hungary, Austria and Germany are only the first wave. Behind them in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are 4 million refugees from the Syrian civil war. Seeing the success of the first wave, they are now on the move.

Behind them are 2 million Alawites and 2 million Christians who will be fleeing Syria when the Bashar Assad regime falls… Now the Iraqis, who live in a country the prospects for whose reunification and peace are receding, have begun to move… When the Americans leave Afghanistan and the Taliban take their revenge, more Afghans will be fleeing west… Africa has a billion people, a number that will double by 2050, and double again to 4 billion by 2100. Are those billions of Africans going to endure lives of poverty under ruthless, incompetent, corrupt and tyrannical regimes, if Europe’s door remains wide open?8

A lot of those whose hearts have been broken by the horrible images of the crisis have an instant reaction to shout down these fears. And yes: a lot of them are overblown, again. Of course ISIS is going to say that they have plans to send in elite terrorist squads with the refugees because they are interested in stoking the fires of suspicion, violence, and hatred. But why should we believe ther threats? The reality is that this is not a new problem and modern countries have methods for screening large refugee populations.

There is also validity to the second fear. Breitbart describes the influx of 25,000 migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos (population 85,000) as a “war zone” due to intense clashes between Syrian and Afghan migrants. Other coverage is less colorful, but still mentions the tension between middle-class Syrians (apt to take selfies with their smartphones when they arrive) and the much more destitute Afghan refugees. The International Business Times reports that “Greek authorities have sent troops and riot police” to Lesbos after “locals are alleged to have thrown a petrol bomb at refugees and fights have broken out between migrants from Syria and Afghanistan.” As with the instability with American migrants, however, a lot of this may be due to the conditions surrounding their arrival. The countries involved (like Greece in this case, or Hungary as another example) do not have the resources to handle this number of refugees and, in any case, are just an inconvenient way station as the refugees flock farther north and west to reach Germany, Scandinavia, or the UK. With planning and resources, a lot of the tension that leads to violence could be abated.

In other words: there’s no reason to panic but there is also no reason to believe that there is no risk at all. There is a risk. Of course there is. We–the United States and also Western and Northern Europe–are rich. We’re on top of the pile these days. For us, any major change is more likely to be threatening than not. But if we want to do good in the world, then taking risks is part of the job description.

I believe we should–as Westerners in general and as Americans in particular–be much more willing to open our hearts and borders and homes to refugees and also to migrants because it is the kind of risk that Christ would want us to take. We should not be reckless and we should not be irresponsible, but we should also not be afraid to take chances to do what ought to be done.

And here are just a few closing thoughts.

First, some have pointed out that rich Arab countries (like Saudi Arabia) are not doing very much at all to assist. Others argue that these nations are often very tiny (think Kuwait or Bahrain) and that even the big ones like Saudi Arabia do not have a habitable space. Both views are correct. There is probably no way that they can take in huge numbers of refugees, but they absolutely should take in some and–in addition–they should absolutely donate significant resources to the European nations who can absorb larger numbers of people.

Second, even if we accept large numbers of refugees, there are still going to be horrible long-term losses from this mass movement of people. Think of the communities–some of which have existed for thousands of years–which may never recover. How will small groups who have preserved their language and culture and religion and identity survive when they are transplanted to new nations and, quite possibly, split up across continents? We should not only react to the short-run crisis, but also do our best to plan for the long-run repercussions.

Third, as long as we’ve decided to help (and we should help!), we ought to do so with as much love and generosity as we can. The Book of Mormon teaches:

For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth itgrudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God.9

If we’re willing to follow this proscription, then there is room for hope and optimism as a light at the end of this tunnel. There is room to believe that–if we are willing to be vulnerable–we may begin to heal the rift that has widened between Christian and Muslim, between East and West, and undercut the darkness and the hatred and the violence that has caused this crisis. God works in mysterious ways, but you only get to see the hidden beauty if you’re willing to be a part of it, I think. So let’s go ahead and take this chance, and do all we can to welcome those who so desperately need our help.


8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Immigrants, Refugees, and Fear”

  1. I wagered (to myself) that I would agree, and I won! Except that your use of fear as the pivot is better than I expected (and better than I would have done myself). Kudos.

    A quibble — I think this sentence (copied from the main text) is reversed: “The dynamic is simple: whoever is on top is predisposed to be in favor of change and against the status quo because they already have it good.”

  2. I would like to add that my disgruntled position with illegal immigration (not the same as assisting immigrants fleeing war) isn’t fear based, but based on the fact that my wife is a legal immigrant and we had to jump through all kinds of hoops, spend thousands of dollars just to get her legal status. Why then does someone who refused to follow the law get a pass?

    I’m actually for (cautiously) assisting both allowing those fleeing war to come here, as well as providing monetary assistance to other locations that are helping as well.

    I’m not for deportation, but a small fine, put them at the back of the line, and so long as they keep their nose clean they are good. Despite what many think, I doubt a wall will do much even if we build one that’s good. We do however need to be working to deport the criminally intent illegal immigrants. The ones that come here and commit violent crimes, transport drugs, or cause other violent problems with the law and people in our country.

    I also want to provide clarification on the whole ‘illegal immigrant’ vs. ‘undocumented immigrant’. These are two different things according to the law. An illegal immigrant is someone that entered the US without permission which is a criminal act allowing for jail time (my position is to flip this to a civil issue as long as they keep their nose otherwise clean).

    An undocumented immigrant is someone who had permission to enter the US legally, but their paperwork has expired and they are still here for whatever reason. This is a civil issue, and is usually handled by a fine and paperwork.

    I get annoyed when someone tries to play off illegal entry as ‘undocumented’ which is willfully misleading and politically correct bs as far as I’m concerned.

  3. I found that inspiring, even as an atheist. I’m not quite ready to take in a family, but years ago, a friend of mine described giving platelets. It sounded uncomfortable and burdensome, but knowing even one person who advocated it made me much more receptive to that message, even years later. I still don’t give as often as I should, but I now have a greater appreciation for the fact that big changes often come in small increments.

    Great post, and perhaps my first step toward more concrete action.

  4. I love the blog, and rarely disagree with you, so the fact that I’m commenting indicates how strongly I feel on the subject. I will have to give your arguments some additional thought, even though upon first read I tend to disagree with your conclusions. Maybe I should start by reading the posts discussing Church leaders’ comments and giving them some thought as well.

    My two biggest concerns with both issues of illegal immigration into the US and the refugee crisis in Europe are these:

    1) I do worry about a dilution of culture. Dilution of culture through mass immigration is a phenomenon that I don’t think has gotten nearly enough attention. If you think, as I do, that culture (i.e. shared societal values) is what has made the United States the place that it is (in Medved’s words, “the greatest nation on God’s green earth”), then a serious dilution of American culture I think can potentially be a very bad thing for the country, and by extension, for the world. It’s bad enough that American culture (traditional American culture as opposed to leftist values) is already being weakened to the point of beginning to turn us into a big, North American, pseudo-European socialist state.

    Re: Europe and the refugee crisis, I’m not a huge fan of European culture, but I do think that it is a very big step above the cultures of the places where these refugees are coming from. If Europe ceases to be the Europe that we know (which they were well on their way to accomplishing all on their own due to low birth rates long before this immigration/refugee thing ever started), then the U.S. will be increasingly isolated from the world with regard to Western values vs. non-Western values.

    Now, I am and have always been of the opinion that the U.S. should increase the amount of legal immigration from all countries around the world (and there should be a stringent equal distribution quota system so it’s fair to everyone, no preference to Latin Americans who can circumvent the system). But, I do also think that there is a number threshold at which immigrants increasingly begin to fail to assimilate into American culture. I don’t pretend to know what that number is or should be, but if the U.S. took in 300 million immigrants in one year (obviously only a thought experiment), then the United States as we know it would cease to exist. What would result would be some mutated, unrecognizable entity. If we took in 30 million a year for the next ten years, the effect would be virtually the same, only a more drawn-out mutation. (Our max legal immigration was less than 2 million for one year, usually less than 1 million. I think 2-3 million could be reasonably safe in terms of assimilation.)

    2) My second biggest concern, while definitely directly related to the first, is that whether it’s completely intentional or completely accidental, there is a hijrah (jihad through immigration) going on. A favorite blogger of mine, Seraphic Secret, explains what is happening as Muslims immigrate to non-Muslim countries and begin to subsume the culture. Certainly a subset of these immigrants want to integrate and adopt the values of their new countries. But evidence points to the fact that the vast majority of them want to remain staunchly Muslim, and in polls, majorities of them hope someday to live under Sharia law again in their new countries. All this is going to do is turn Europe (and someday further away the U.S.) into the same stinking, corrupt, dirt poor types of countries that these people are fleeing.

    You say we are fearful because “we don’t know how the influx of illegal immigrants…will change our culture and nation”, but I see plenty of evidence all over showing exactly how immigrants ARE changing culture here and abroad. And it does make me fearful. And I don’t think my fears are exaggerated. You talk about “healing the rift that has widened between Christian and Muslim”. I see no healing unless peaceful, Western-friendly Muslims muster the courage strength to reform their religion and cease wanting to kill Christians, Jews, and Infidels (obviously not all Muslims, but a not insignificant percentage of them, and the majority of the rest may not want us dead, but they do want us to be subject to Sharia and jizya). I see this rift as pretty one-sided. Christians haven’t done anything specific to cause the rift (and, granted, not much to heal it), but millions of Muslims wouldn’t hesitate to have us killed if they could find a way do it. 12% of 1.5 Billion is a pretty big number.

  5. As long as there is war, more refugees will come.

    So the war must be solved. ISIS must be destroyed. Once upon a time the French foreign Legion was made up of immigrants to protect colonial interests in Africa.

    Build a European Foreign Legion, granting residency to the members and immediate family and send them back to their old home with training, leadership, and air support to finish the job.

    If you think this sounds like bluster, you haven’t thought through the reality of your good intentions in a war with a group more evil and with more power than the devil.

    Again, the war problem must be solved. We can but be sticking or head in the sand while the issues compound. Westerners can’t fight it alone without turning it into a crusade. Let’s help them reclaim their homes, their land, their liberty to worship God as they choose.

    That is far more noble than giving them a place to stay while their neighbors back home get raped and tortured. We have a moral imperative to help them protect themselves.

    It’s a tragedy what the spirit of fear has done to us, so that we wax cold when it comes to defend our neighbors.

    Captain Moroni didn’t promise a free boat ride out of there. He organized the non-soldier citizens to fight.

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