Welcoming Refugees

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

These noble thoughts conclude a sonnet to the “Mother of Exiles”. A plaque bearing the text of the poem is mounted on the inner wall of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, which has welcomed countless millions arriving in the United States at Ellis Island.

Likewise, Pier 21 in Halifax welcomed over one million immigrants between 1928 and 1971, and continues to be where new immigrants (and new Canadian citizens) are celebrated.

Both Canada and the United States owe their rapid growth to a constant stream of immigrants. One might, therefore, anticipate similar responses to the Syrian refugee crisis. In fact, they are almost polar opposites.

All three parties in Canada’s recent election promised to bring refugees here; the only differences were in how many and how fast. The Liberals are now faced with implementing their commitment to bring 25,000 by the end of the year. It is unlikely that a thoughtful evaluation of the logistical challenges informed that promise.

Security is one of those challenges. Worries about security have dramatically increased after the events in Paris. Nevertheless, Canadians continue to support the refugee program. Premier Brad Wall of Saskatchewan, among others, has expressed concern about the timing—but not the ultimate goal.

The United States has taken in fewer than 3,000 Syrian refugees so far. President Obama has made an exceedingly unambitious proposal, to bring in an additional 10,000 after an average screening period of two years. On a per capita basis, that would be like Canada bringing in 1,000.

But the Republicans will have none of it. Leaders in the House and Senate both call for an end to accepting any refugees. More than half of state governors have said that the refugees would not be welcome.

This is allegedly based on security concerns, even though the heavily screened arrivals would pose little risk. If the Republicans were really interested in improving security in the United States, they might take a different approach to gun ownership. Mass shootings (those which involve more than four victims killed or wounded) occur in the US about once per day. Americans are seven times more likely than Canadians to kill each other with guns.

The many candidates for the Republican presidential nomination also oppose Obama’s meagre proposal, while competing with each other on which is the most fervent Christian. They seem to forget the final charge that Christ gave to his disciples: “… I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Just as you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me.”

Perhaps those candidates need to spend more time in Bible study.

Most Canadians, regardless of religious persuasion, support the welcoming of Syrian refugees. Those experienced in refugee settlement understand the challenges in welcoming each family and providing them with social support, food, shelter, schooling, orientation, and access to health care.

How well that is done will be very important to the chances of success of the refugees who arrive. Giving organizations like the Immigrant Settlement Association of Nova Scotia more time to prepare will improve those chances.

If our welcoming process is done badly, it will lead to poor outcomes for the refugees and diminish popular support for welcoming more. That, more than security concerns, is a reason for proceeding more slowly. Two years from now, nobody will care whether they arrived in December or in March. What we—and the refugees—will care about is how successfully they have become part of our communities.

The American response is unworthy of their heritage. But we should not feel smug about our commitment. It is less than half the number of Vietnamese boat people we welcomed. Sweden, with a population of less than ten million, will receive nearly 200,000 refugees this year. Germany will likely end up with close to a million.

Welcoming tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free can make an important contribution to improving our demographic profile, with more kids in schools and young adults to replace our rapidly aging workforce. They can become major contributors to our society, as have so many before them.

There appears to be widespread support for the program in Nova Scotia. Doing it quickly is not as important as doing it well.


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