The United States has helped create the current worldwide refugee crisis, former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones said Monday, and it needs to help solve it.
“I think we have a lot of soul searching to do,” Jones told the 34th annual Frank Church Conference on public affairs at Boise State University, which focused this year on refugees, migration and national security. “Let’s be the country we used to be. You can’t be a great country unless you’re a good country.”
Jones was among an array of speakers addressing the issue, from former high-ranking government officials to humanitarian aid workers to refugees themselves. More than 400 people attended the free conference, including hundreds of high school and college students.
The world is seeing a surge in civilian casualties of war, from deaths and injuries to tens of millions of displaced civilians, Steven Feldstein, Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs at BSU and a former deputy assistant secretary of state, told the crowd. There currently are more than 65 million people who are displaced worldwide, the greatest population displacement since World War II.
In Yemen alone, 3 million people have been pushed from their homes, and that nation is facing a humanitarian crisis complete with cholera, famine, and continued bombing attacks on hospitals and other civilian facilities.
“I think the indicators are ominous,” Feldstein said. He said the Trump Administration announced a $110 billion arms package for Saudi Arabia in June, despite Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen – which have been supported by both the United States and the UK. Worldwide norms about the conduct of war, he said, “are diminishing. … Civilian fatalities remain near record levels.”
Given that, he said, “Raising the refugee cap above the Obama era of 100,000 seems like the right thing to do.” But instead, the Trump Administration has decided to lower the cap on refugee admissions to the U.S. to 45,000, the lowest since the modern U.S. refugee system was established in 1980. That’s a move that’s been lauded by Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, who is running for governor.
Feldstein told the conference, “The U.S. has a significant responsibility for the global humanitarian crisis. … Fighting wars abroad has real consequences.”
Jones, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, said he’s concerned that the nation is “turning inward as a country, taking away the welcome mat for immigrants and refugees.”
He said that’s something that’s happened periodically throughout U.S. history, starting with objections to people fleeing the Irish potato famine.
“People were talking about these people are going to bring crime and pestilence, while some of their sons were fighting for the union side in the civil war and distinguishing themselves,” Jones said. “We saw the same thing just after the Chinese immigrants had finished the Transcontinental Railroad,” with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
“In each of these instances, we looked at ourselves, and said, ‘That’s not us,’” Jones said. “I think we did some shameful things. I think we’re getting into the same shameful activity. We have politicians that are trying to win public office on the backs of refugees and immigrants, and I think it’s shameful.”
Jones said he was angered when folks at home objected to bringing in refugees from Vietnam whom he had worked with as interpreters and partners during the war there, after the fall of Saigon in 1975. And he said it happened again in subsequent wars.
“We started the war in Iraq, it was one of the stupidest blunders that this country has ever made,” Jones declared to loud applause. “It was completely unnecessary. But you know, there are still 50,000 Iraqis who helped us in that war, who were our partners, who acted as interpreters – there are still 50,000 people waiting to get into the United States. …. But when you have a 45,000 limitation on refugees in this coming fiscal year, certainly you’re not going to be able to meet your commitment to those people.”
He said the same thing goes for people who helped U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the Middle East, Somalia and more.
Several speakers at the conference cited studies showing that immigrants and refugees, far from being a drain on the economy, have positive economic impact, pay taxes, and are more likely to start their own businesses.
Mohamed Abubakr, president of the African Middle Eastern Leadership Project, who moved to the U.S. 18 months ago to start his organization, said with a smile, “I’ve already hired Americans.”
Refik Sadikovic, a lecturer at Boise State, shared how he came to the U.S. as a refugee after being driven out of his home in Bosnia in 1994 as a teen. Arriving with no knowledge of English, he worked as a street sweeper, then eventually went to work for Micron Technology and earned multiple college degrees.
Jennifer Sime, senior vice president for U.S. programs for the International Rescue Committee, said, “When people meet refugees and realize who they are, that begins to sort of change their mind.”
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