Put refugees first

May 17, 2006|By FRED M. B. AMRAM

I was a refugee. I sought refuge in the United States.

An immigrant voluntarily chooses a new country usually to find greater financial or personal opportunity. Not I. As a German Jew at the time of the Holocaust, I was running from certain Nazi slavery or death. I escaped to Belgium and then to the Netherlands, and on a Dutch ship entered the United States - legally.

My parents were required to have an American sponsor - in our case, a wealthy woman who guaranteed that she would be financially responsible if we were unable to support ourselves. Welfare and public health support were out of the question. How many Jews died in the Holocaust because they could not find sponsors?

And there were quotas. The number of Germans entering the United States - Jewish or not - was limited. How many Jews were turned back to burn in brick ovens because the immigration quota from Germany or Poland was filled?

The very "liberal" President Franklin D. Roosevelt let most of my family die in the concentration camps. They, like me, would have been refugees hoping to live in the land of milk and honey - and I mean "live" quite literally.

Interestingly, at the time when the United States was gearing up for World War II, no one was hiring "aliens" to provide cheap labor. European Jews faced an "immigration crisis" while fleeing from the Nazis. Only 161,000 Jews entered the United States between 1933 and 1942. Millions were left to die.

I support reasonably open borders. I support a liberal immigration policy. I'm still angry that 6 million died in the gas chambers, many of whom could have been saved had they not been turned away by the United States and other free nations. Then why am I ambivalent about the 11 million illegal aliens from south of the border? A closer examination may help.

Currently, the United States has two immigration crises. The first is a question of who should be permitted to enter the United States legally, as many do every day. This is a matter of public policy, one that can and should be re-examined periodically by Congress.

At present, it seems to favor people with marketable skills, most often scientific or technical skills. These legal immigrants come chiefly from First World nations. I favor modifying that policy, making it more "liberal."

Existing immigration policy also concerns itself with national security, a focus that I strongly endorse. The sieve that we call our southern border does not ensure national security.

The second, and more imminent, crisis is the question of illegal immigrants. If they were fleeing from Darfur or another mass ethnic cleansing, I would call them refugees and I would be more sympathetic. But we're talking mostly about people who choose to come to the United States even though they are safe in their home communities. They seek financial opportunity. And they find financial opportunity only - I stress only - because profiteers choose to hire them at below-adequate wages. They enter illegally because bosses choose to hire them illegally.

I understand poverty. I've been there. I have sympathy for illegal immigrants. But should they fill below-minimum-wage U.S. jobs ahead of the many Americans, born and raised here, who are looking for limited-skill work but at a living wage?

And if we must import workers, what happened to the hundreds of thousands from Sudan experiencing ethnic cleansing? There are millions in the world hoping to sustain life who are excluded from this country because of quotas. Will we prefer those who illegally seek to improve their fortune in this country over those who want to sustain life in the face of rape, mutilation, execution or starvation?

This dilemma gives us a chance to examine immigration as public policy.

Clearly, not all the world's frightened and needy can live in the United States. The government must make choices. Should we let ethnic cleansing evaporate whole populations in Africa while we welcome illegal aliens who are safe but poor in their home countries?

Should we permit those who enter the country illegally - not fleeing persecution - to find work and, perhaps, permanent residence and citizenship, while we continue to have an immigration policy that sets unreasonable quotas restricting potential immigration from other parts of the world?

Two conclusions:

First, immigration policies should be made consciously by Congress, not by people entering the country illegally. These policies should allow a broad spectrum of immigrants from throughout the world in order to ensure authentic diversity.

Second, if exceptions to formal immigration policy are made occasionally, they should favor refugees over immigrants, favor those who are fleeing from imminent danger over those seeking financial opportunity. We should not turn our backs on Darfur.

Fred M. B. Amram is the Morse alumni distinguished professor of creativity and communication at the University of Minnesota. His e-mail is amram001@umn.edu.

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