Refugees queue for registration at the Presevo refugee center in Serbia. If the U.S. turns away refugees, we place ourselves at greater risk and abandon our core principles, writes Rep. Adam Smith, in this exclusive #AcrossBorders guest column. Photo by: Meabh Smith / CC BY

America must lead on refugees. It is in our national security interest and central to our founding, character, and reputation. Syrian and Iraqi families fleeing brutal civil war and sectarian violence want a better life. Like refugees before them, they see the United States and the American people as their hope to be free from repression, persecution, and death. They see us this way because we have an admirable history of welcoming refugees. If we turn away refugees, we place ourselves at greater risk and abandon our core principles.

The U.S. was settled by refugees from England who were fleeing an oppressive regime and its maltreatment of those who disagreed with the state-sanctioned religion. Those settlers sought the same sort of refuge needed by the Syrian family that does not want to live under an extremist caliphate, or an Iraqi family seeking freedom from sectarian violence. The fact that Syrians and Iraqis want to make the U.S. their new home should be a source of pride for us. We should feel honored that desperate families still see America as a place to turn. Instead of casting refugees as a burden, we should welcome them into our American family as we have done so many times before.

The great seal of the United States has the Latin phrase, “E pluribus unum.” It means, “Out of many, one” and that no matter where we come from, we all come together under the principles of our founding documents. History proves that refugees have made America great.

“Instead of casting refugees as a burden, we should welcome them into our American family as we have done so many times before.”

— U.S. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state

The U.S. welcomed about 450,000 Europeans in the wake of World War II, helping fuel the industrial economic boom of the mid-20th century. Well over 650,000 Cubans came to the U.S. in the 20th century, and today, we have seen Cuban-Americans run for president. Roughly 120,000 Vietnamese refugees came to America in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and have pursued their American dreams, including in the Seattle area. Since 2011, about 2,300 Syrian refugees fleeing a brutal civil war have been admitted to the United States. We can — and must — do better.

Refugees undergo an extremely thorough vetting process before being admitted into the U.S. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees registers the refugees (overwhelmingly women and children) and takes their biometric data and background information.

This information is forwarded to the U.S. government, which conducts a rigorous screening process including health checks, biometric checks, background and biographical investigations, and in-person interviews conducted by U.S. officials and several agencies — the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Department of Defense. DHS has added an additional country-specific layer of review, which includes extra screening for possible national security risks. While our resources are not infinite and while no system is perfect, our refugee screenings are very comprehensive, and if we could welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees in the past, we could — and should — do more now. 

Welcoming refugees is not only the right thing to do, it also helps keep us safer. Today’s technology makes information instantly and widely available around the world. People are watching how we treat refugees and those in need. Do we want to feed the narrative of our enemies that America is anti-Muslim and xenophobic? Or, do we want to show the world that we are as committed to our diversity as ever? Aren’t we safer by embracing our history which shows refugees as hardworking, productive members of our society who help renew America and the dream it offers?

For America to lead, we must be open to and supportive of refugees at all levels. I believe there are two avenues development and humanitarian organizations should consider moving forward.  

First, look for ways to encourage diaspora and immigrant communities to organize and become more politically active. By helping first and second generation Americans advocate on these issues with members of Congress in all 435 congressional districts and in the Senate, over time, immigrant and refugee voices will have more support in the halls of Congress.  

Second, look to partner with other civil society groups, such as chambers of commerce, local high schools and universities, and cultural and sports organizations, to educate them on the challenges and opportunities of resettling newly arrived refugees and introduce the refugees to the rich diversity of American society. Having refugees or first generation Americans being willing to get out and meet other stakeholders — including those in opposition — to make these conversations more personal, help shape the debate, and ideally find new allies.

We must continue to uphold “E pluribus unum” and demonstrate that we are that pluralistic society. Whether the descendants of Mayflower refugees, Muslims from Syria, or Catholics from Central America, the U.S. must live up to its ideals when it protects and helps those in need.

Across Borders is a monthlong online conversation hosted by Devex and partners — World Vision, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, the U.S. nonprofit partner of the International Organization for Migration and United Nations Volunteers — to analyze and amplify the discussion on global migration and current refugee crises through the lens of global security, development cooperation and humanitarian aid work, and more. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation on social media tagging @devex and #AcrossBorders.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Adam Smith

    Adam Smith represents the 9th Congressional District of Washington in the U.S. House of Representatives.