Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

Sending, Receiving, Embracing: The Pulse of Global Immigration

Author: 
George Rupp

Yet the movement of money, goods, and ideas is relatively straightforward compared to the movement of people – and today, the world as a whole is confronting more people on the move from more directions and with more diverse motivations than ever before in human history.

Our American experience as a nation of immigrants, with its proud tradition of welcoming new- comers, serves us well as we grapple with this new set of challenges. It gives us a significant advantage compared to countries with more homogeneous populations. This comparative advantage has al- lowed the United States to develop a relatively open labor market that can attract needed workers from outside the country and, over time, integrate them into our society.

Many developed countries have not been so successful. Think of the persistent failure of Germany to accept Turkish or Greek guest workers as full citizens – or even their children who are born and live their entire lives in Germany. Or consider the marginalized status of generations of Koreans in Japan.

Resisting Nostalgia

I do not need to emphasize the stresses that can accompany a nation’s diverse cultural traditions. But nostalgia for some mythic monocultural past is a loser – for the U.S. and for the world. On this set of issues, the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia show more promise than France or Germany. Similarly, an India that incorporates its large Muslim minority is a better bet than a Pakistan that

defines itself as Muslim. Accepting the challenges of ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity is a more promising prescription for vitality than defining a nation monoculturally.

Yet our experience as a nation of immigrants is not an adequate guide for the new global situation we face. Even in the case of economic immigrants, the U.S. has certainly not had an open door. One result is, as we all know, a large influx of illegal immi- grants, which constitutes a major policy conundrum for this country. But our attempts to comprehend the issue of illegal entry into the U.S. should call attention to the larger, global dynamic at work: we cannot adequately address the challenge of immi- gration that faces the “receiving countries” unless we also attend to the underlying conditions that shape the “sending countries.”

I will examine this rising global dynamic, as well as post-9/11 attitudes of the U.S. toward immigration, by considering an important subset of global migration – the plight of the world’s displaced people, the world’s forced migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.

Aside from the immeasurable numbers of voluntary economic immigrants, there are also some 35 million displaced people in the world – people who have been driven from their home communities and are seeking refuge wherever they can find it. If they have crossed an international border, they are officially designated as refugees, according to international law and United Nations definitions. If they remain within their country of origin, they are typically referred to as internally displaced persons. But all have been forced from their home communities.

These displaced millions figure prominently in our image of global dislocation: throngs of people clutching their belongings as they flee conflict; long lines of supplicants who wait for food or shelter or application papers; circles of family members who rejoice as they are reunited after years of separation. Such refugees and asylum seekers are salient in our American traditions too, from the Pilgrims on. But these people on the move often pose an even more demanding challenge than immigrants who leave their homelands voluntarily to seek economic opportunities. The organization I lead focuses its efforts on these dislocated individuals and communities.

The International Rescue Committee was founded in 1933 at the suggestion of Albert Einstein. Its first governing board included John Dewey and Reinhold Niebuhr, among other luminaries. It had a straightforward mission: to rescue refugees from Europe and to help them get resettled here in the United States. To that end, it had operations in Europe to expedite escape from Germany and countries under Nazi occupation and an office in New York from which this “committee” provided assistance to refugees in becoming reestablished in this country.

A World On the Move

The IRC continues this double tradition: we are often the first on the scene of disaster through our emergency response unit, and we work with refugees as they resettle in this country. In the work of resettlement, we have twenty-four offices across the U.S., including one in New York City, where we also have our international headquarters.

Through those offices, in normal times we help to resettle about 10,000 refugees annually in the U.S. It is exhilarating work, which we do with roughly seven times as many volunteers as employees. Most of our employees are themselves former refugees who are perfectly placed to press our agenda of tough love: a new start within six months, including a place to live, language training, a job, and school for any children.

It is enormously rewarding to witness how the refugees with whom we work make the most of every opportunity offered to them. It is therefore all the more disheartening to see the sharp contraction in refugee admissions since September 11, 2001.

Over the two decades before 9/11, even the target number for refugee admissions had declined from a high of 231,000 to 70,000. In his first year in office, President Bush committed himself to increasing the number steadily to get back to 90,000. But after 9/11, security concerns drastically curtailed refugee admissions. Even family reunifications of husband and wife or parents and children often took over a year to adjudicate. Overall, the numbers dropped two-thirds. They have gradually increased since that low point but still have not reached the 70,000 level.

We as a nation should move expeditiously to return to historic levels of refugee admissions. But even if we do, the challenge of displaced persons cannot come close to being met through resettlement of refugees in this country. If, for example, we were to reach our present presidentially established ceiling, the 70,000 refugees admitted would account for only about two out of every thousand displaced people worldwide. It is wonderful to pro- vide opportunities for those two, and the IRC is proud to contribute to making the most of those opportunities. But that leaves 998 out of every 1,000 who have no hope of resettling here. This arithmetic – 998 out of every 1,000 displaced persons have no prospect of resettling in the U.S. – is why the IRC is also engaged in two dozen countries around the world. We do there what we do here: we seek to assist displaced people to gain a new start. For a tiny fraction of the total, this new start will take place in other developed countries. But for the vast majority of migrants, it means be- coming integrated into the nation where they have taken refuge or at some point voluntary repatriation to their homeland.

The Sending Countries

It is therefore imperative that we address the needs of the places that generate displaced populations – the sending countries. Only if their needs are ad- dressed do we have any chance of grasping the challenge of immigration to the U.S. and other receiving countries.

The dramas of the sending countries teach three lessons we must learn.

One is directed towards organizations like the IRC. From the very beginning of our intervention in any crisis, we must not foster dependence on the part of those victimized by conflict. Put positively, we must focus at the outset on building the capacity of those with whom we work to begin their lives anew.

This lesson is, of course, much easier to state than to exemplify. In the heat of an emergency, the first priority is to meet immediate needs. When the death toll from readily preventable diseases is rising sharply – for example, from diarrhea or cholera – what is immediately required is potable water and rehydration therapy rather than a long-term plan for rehabilitation.

Yet even as the most pressing demands for assistance must be met, the danger to avoid is the undermining of longer-term self-subsistence. All of us must work in every way we can to move expeditiously from sustenance that fosters dependence to building the capacity to start anew. This requires firm advocacy directed to the UN, to countries that host refugees, and to governments that have allowed their residents to be displaced. It requires programs that offer education, training, and employment so that the uprooted are prepared to be productive members of the communities to which they return or into which they are integrated locally.

A second lesson also comes into sharp focus in the settings in which we work: communities at all levels, including governments themselves, are crucial for human flourishing and human survival.

Through my IRC work, I have visited more than twenty countries that illustrate the cataclysmic con- sequences of the collapse of communities – often because of a record of persistently bad government.

Catastrophic Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo is a vivid example. The disastrous state of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire) has a long history that includes voracious colonial exploitation beginning in the last quarter of the nineteenth century under King Leopold II of Belgium and later the corrupt post-colonial rule of Mobutu Sese Seko. But its most recent turmoil stems from 1994 when many of the perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda fled into eastern Zaire.

The most recent IRC mortality survey has found that 5,400,000 people have died from war-related causes in Congo since 1998, the world’s deadliest documented conflict since World War II. The vast majority died from non-violent causes such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition – easily preventable and treatable conditions when people have access to health care and nutritious food. These shocking numbers are the highest totals for any war in Africa, yet they go largely unnoticed. To put the point sharply, this death toll is the equivalent in loss of life of the World Trade Center disaster every day for five years.

Yet as awful as this news is, there is also a glimmer of good news. Comparing the figures in the last two surveys with the earlier ones, the mortality rate is declining. It is still extremely high. But the recent peace accord, the arrival of UN observers and a peacekeeping force, and greater access for humanitarian assistance have all contributed to a reduced level of violent conflict. Though this relative stability is very fragile, as the recent resurgence of conflict in North Kivu demonstrates, it is still a major achievement.

The Good of Government

The challenge is to continue this modestly positive trajectory. To do so requires the further consolidation of protection and security. It also calls for the adjudication of conflicting claims and the establishment of social order acceptable to opposed parties. In short, it entails the authority that sound governance provides to well-ordered communities – a lesson that can be generalized to dozens of other conflict and post-conflict settings around the world.

This lesson is especially important for us Americans to learn. Criticism of the state has a long and honorable history here. None of us has much patience with the bureaucratic red tape that not in- frequently characterizes government programs. But criticism of government has in recent years too often become a denigration of government as such. For any of us who spend time in failed states, this refusal to recognize the crucial role of government in establishing the order that our common life requires is a serious mistake. To address the challenges of conflict situations worldwide, we must embrace the positive role of government in building communities that are stable and secure. And only the support of more adequate governance can staunch the hemorrhaging of people from the sending countries in numbers that the receiving countries cannot absorb.

The third lesson follows from this acknowledgement of the crucial role of government in establishing ordered communities: catastrophe prevention is vastly preferable to emergency intervention.

Prevention of catastrophe in failing states re- quires investment in peacekeeping forces that have an unambiguous mandate, sufficient numbers of well-trained troops, and adequate logistical support.

It also calls for trade policies that more consistently allow poor countries to benefit from globalization. Here there is much room for improvement. To note perhaps the most egregious instance, subsidies that the U.S. pays to its cotton growers allow American exports to undersell otherwise fully competitive West African farmers. This state of affairs is hard to defend – especially if we are serious about preventing conflict through orderly development.

Along with contributing more substantially to multilateral peacekeeping and leveling the playing field in trade, the developed world must also in- crease foreign assistance for investment in basic health care, education, and livelihoods. For more than ten years, the developed world has agreed on the target of 0.7 percent of gross national product as a goal for development assistance. In recent years, five countries had reached or surpassed this goal: Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Sweden. The average for the twenty-two developed countries as a group is far short of the mark. The U.S. has consistently been at or near the bot- tom of that list.

A Generous Nation?

What is striking is not only the U.S.’s low ranking but also the extent of national self-deception on the issue. Polls consistently show that most of us think we are a more generous nation than others are in giving economic aid to developing countries. I think two considerations help to explain the discrepancy between the actual facts and our sense of ourselves.

The first is that Americans do give generously to private or nongovernmental agencies, a resource not included in international comparisons of official development assistance. Second, our own past performance was in fact far more generous than the more recent pattern.

In the late 1940s, at the height of the Marshall Plan, the fraction of the federal budget committed to foreign assistance was over 18 percent, an astonishingly large proportion. In terms of gross national income, that amounts to 4.2 percent – or six times the current target! By the early 1960s, this percentage had dropped by a factor of seven to 0.6 percent – much lower but still within striking range of the 0.7 percent target. Today the figure is 0.2 percent, one-third of the level in the early 1960s and one-twentieth of the level in 1948.

However we explain the discrepancy between our sense of our own generosity and the facts, we need to focus our energy and attention on rectifying the situation so the U.S. moves closer to its fair share of the investment in health care and education that are crucial for sustainable development worldwide.

To bring such dry statistics to life, think in terms of $10 as the total gross national income of a country. Of that $10 the most generous nation, Norway, gives about a dime for development assistance, while the U.S. gives two pennies – not out of a dollar but out of $10. That is how feeble our current effort is. Even if we add in all non-governmental donations – personal contributions, corporate gifts, and foundation grants – those amount to only another two or three cents for a total of a nickel out of $10.

If we rise to the challenge of approximating the level of commitment of Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden, and others, we could have tremendous impact on the forward movement of the developing world. If increased investment is carefully targeted, if it includes incentives for governments in developing countries to shoulder their responsibilities, and if it is combined with more adequately supported multilateral security forces and fairer global trade agreements, the result could be a major transformation in the developing world – in particular in sub-Saharan Africa – over the next generation.

The Receiving Countries

These three lessons are crucial if the international community is going to address the needs of the sending countries and thereby counter the push factor that drives people from the developing world to the developed world.

That brings us to another set of three lessons – those affecting the receiving countries.

The first lesson impels us to get our immigration vetting and approvals into some semblance of efficient order instead of allowing fears of worldwide terrorism to paralyze the process. We need to in- crease the numbers of legal immigrants in general and refugees in particular. But the U.S. must also streamline its procedures and organize the respective responsibilities of the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security so the approval process is less convoluted and protracted.

As an example, look at the current situation of Iraqi refugees. There are some two million Iraqi refugees in surrounding countries – in addition to the more than two million displaced within Iraq it- self. Earlier this spring I visited the two neighboring countries with the largest number of refugees – Syria and Jordan. The situation of the refugees is truly deplorable. They are living in squalid conditions in the poorest parts of Amman and Damascus, not in separate settlements but in and among Jordanians and Syrians. They are not allowed to work, they have exhausted their savings, and they have limited ac- cess to health care and education. Jordan and Syria are bearing the brunt of the impact: 500,000 Iraqis in Jordan, which has a total population of about 7 million; 1.5 million in Syria, with a total population of about 20 million.

The Fate of Iraqi Refugees

The only long-term solution is for these Iraqis to be able to return home voluntarily to a secure Iraq. But the odds of that solution are not good for the immediate future. In the meantime, the international community must do much more to provide assistance to Jordan and Syria as they struggle to cope with the problem. And other countries – in particular, the U.S. in view of our responsibility for their plight – must admit much larger numbers for resettlement. Here we have fallen woefully short. Last year we set a miniscule target of 7,000 Iraqi nationals – and admitted only 1,600, mostly from the pre-war caseload. This year we have set a goal of 12,000. Legislation sponsored by Senator Ted Kennedy called for also admitting another 5,000 per year on what are termed “Special Immigrant Visas” intended specifically for those Iraqi nationals who worked directly with the U.S. government or American contractors.

All of these pledges are caught up in endless bureaucratic impediments. Frankly, much of the problem is that the administration has no interest in facilitating the arrival of large numbers of Iraqis whose very presence here will call attention to the disaster in their home country. Yet we simply must do better in expediting the admissions of refugees and immigrants who are in dire straits because of our actions.

Lesson two focuses on the prospect of welcoming connections between immigrants and the places they left. We all need to be more aware and more vocal about the enormous contributions that immigrants make to this country as energetic workers and responsible citizens. But we should also affirm the connections of these new Americans to their countries of origin. One connection is the enormous sum of remittances that migrants around the world send back home. The best estimate is $300 billion. That is triple the total of foreign assistance from all sources worldwide. They are agents of significant development in their countries of origin.

American Mosaic

A third lesson we need to learn concerns how we develop a culture of inclusion adequate to this time of massive global migration. We all know the dominant American narrative. Its motto is e pluribus unum. Its metaphor is the melting pot. It is a compelling story. I personally identify with it to a considerable degree; my own family history illustrates that this account is not just a fondly told fairy tale.

My parents were both immigrants – from culturally different parts of Germany. My father arrived in 1930 from the Black Forest in Baden-Wittenberg; my mother in 1937 from the Rhineland. I spoke German before I learned English, and I lived in Germany as a student and faculty member. But I married an American.

My wife Nancy traces her family on both sides back to the Mayflower. Both families had lived in New England for the several centuries until Nancy’s father accepted a position in Pennsylvania in 1952 and then, in 1956, moved the family to New Jersey, where Nancy and I met in high school. From Nancy’s undiluted Mayflower-originated New England family, the next generation went astray: Nancy married me, son of German immigrants; and her brother married the daughter of Irish Catholics, a significant departure for the Congregationalist family. Even more remarkable is the story of the next generation, a total of four children including our two daughters. One married the son of Italian Catholic immigrants; the second married a Catholic Singaporean of Chinese and Malay ancestry; the third married a Catholic Puerto Rican; and the fourth married an Indian Sikh.

All members of this remarkably diverse brood speak English, although in several cases with distinct accents. All are fully capable of flourishing in the U.S. In this sense they embody the metaphor of the melting pot.

And yet they also express what is new about our situation. It is no longer just a melting pot. The Singaporean has strong ties to his homeland. His family is there. He owns property there. He is fending off job offers to return. The family of the Puerto Rican is bi-located, with homes and business interests in both Florida and Puerto Rico. The parents of the Indian have moved back to India to live there in their retirement. These ongoing connections between the U.S. and other lands are completely consistent with our globalized world but different from the pattern of the past.

As all of us seek to address the challenges of immigration, we should focus again on the impressive resources we have. Our experience as a nation of immigrants serves us well. We can continue to make a case for the resilience and absorptive capacity of the U.S. – if only we do not press prematurely for the melting pot as the only ideal we cherish. Even if in the very long run we will be a melting pot, in the shorter term we need to affirm the pluralism of our salad bowl or our mosaic.

I do not believe there are unmeltable ethnics. But I am convinced that we impoverish ourselves if we move quickly to insist on a least common denominator. Immigrants who remain loyal to the traditions of their country of origin still become fully American. Our challenge is to recognize them and value the way they are our fellow citizens even if their way is not identical to ours. That is how I would frame our new American conversation.

Afghanistan: A Refugee Case Study

The example of Afghanistan illustrates how the IRC and others in the international community address the ordeal of the vast numbers of displaced people victimized by protracted conflict.
We first became engaged there when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan nearly 30 years ago generated large numbers of displaced people. The IRC has assisted about 7,000 Afghan refugees who have resettled in this country during these tumultuous decades – proud Americans who also remain deeply interested in Afghanistan. but in addition, we have worked with Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and with those who returned to Afghanistan.

The number of Afghan refugees reached a peak of around six million in the early 1990s – almost a thousand times as many as we helped to resettle here. The vast majority of those millions of refugees fled to either Iran or Pakistan. many have returned to their homeland. In the fall of 2003 alone, almost two million refugees seized this opportunity, and several million more have returned since then.

But not all the refugees return. Perhaps as many as two million have opted for local integration, especially in the ethnically similar northwest frontier province of Pakistan. The IRC has been actively engaged with refugee settlements in this region
for about twenty-five years. The children who have grown up in these settlements are now adults who have never lived in Afghanistan. Their villages are relatively well integrated into the social and economic patterns of that part of Pakistan. In some respects, notably education and health care, their situation is more favorable than that of the local Pakistanis. We
are, therefore, increasingly opening up access to our programs to the Pakistani population as well, so as to nurture the full acceptance of Afghan refugees In every case our intention is to help refugees so they can restart their lives. As in most of the countries where we are active, our programs include water and sanitation, housing, health care, and education. The educational programs have been especially important, because they have prepared a generation of leaders, some who have been in Afghanistan for years and others who are now re- turning from Pakistan. Inside Afghanistan, the IRC administered a system of small house-based schools that continued even during the rule of the Taliban. And we educated girls as well as boys, which the Taliban tolerated because the parents insisted on it. Interestingly, Afghan President Hamid Karzai him- self once taught English in our school for Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan, as he proudly re- minded me when we first met in Kabul.
One initiative that focuses directly on the need to establish both a viable national government and sustainable local communities is called the National Solidarity Program, funded primarily by the World bank. The IRC is one of the implementing partners. The program as deployed in Afghanistan begins with the empowering of local village councils – at this point the IRC is active in more than a thousand villages – and then works to provide national and international support for development priorities established through deliberations at that level.

Afghanistan is not yet safely beyond the turmoil of the past. It is still on a knife edge and could again fall back into chaos. That is why it is crucial that the u.S. and other developed countries follow through on the assistance we have promised. If we do, and if the Afghans rise to the enormous challenges they still face, we will all have reason to be proud.

George Rupp (YDS, 1967) has been president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee since 2002. He was president of Columbia University from 1993-2002. He has also been president of Rice University and dean of the Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of five books, including Globalization Challenged: Commitment, Conflict, Community (Columbia University Press, 2006).

Issue Title: 
Who is my Neighbor? Facing Immigration
Issue Year: 
2008