Refugees and Obama's American Values
When President-elect Barack Obama announced his foreign policy team on Dec. 1, he listed four "American values" that his government will pursue: "Democracy and justice; opportunity and unyielding hope -- because American values are America's greatest export to the world."
All that was part of Obama's campaign promise to restore American moral standing abroad. Right now, it's still just words. It's time to ask what kind of nuts and bolts policies actually would put those values into action.
Clearly, as Obama reiterated after the election, the first step must be to undo the long list of abuses that have tarnished our national honor -- aggressive war, Guantanamo, officially sanctioned torture and so on. But that's just playing defense, trying to remedy our past wrongs and lessen our sense of shame.
Obama is promising to go further -- to export opportunity and hope as well. And that is why, as president, Obama will have good reason to look at U.S. refugee policy and to make it a centerpiece of his international agenda.
In European elections, rising xenophobia leads politicians to compete to show their hostility to asylum seekers. But Americans are supposed to be different. As Obama told Europeans in Berlin in July, "Our allegiance has never been to any particular tribe or kingdom -- indeed, every language is spoken in our country; every culture has left its imprint on ours."
But in recent decades, we have neglected that part of our heritage. That is why Obama has an opening. He needs to restore our country's moral standing, and American refugee policy is in dire need of restoration.
In 1980, we invited 200,000 refugees to our shores, but that figure has since declined by a startling 80 percent. Effective control of the U.S. refugee program is split between the United Nations, a few private organizations and two different federal departments.
In a world with 16 million refugees, this Byzantine system somehow fails year after year to find enough refugees to fill a meager resettlement quota of 70,000. The U.S. refugee program has atrophied so badly that in October the State Department expressed pride that it had managed to come just 10,000 refugees short of its target, which was nevertheless its best performance in years.
It need not be that way. Granting refuge to the persecuted can mobilize Americans across partisan and religious divides. With four practical steps, Obama quickly can turn a declining government program into a bold American initiative on the world stage.Increase our refugee quota. The quota for immigrants coming to work is currently at least 140,000 per year -- double the refugee quota. If we can invite an immigrant to our shores to earn money, can't we also let someone come to find freedom? Let average Americans sponsor refugees who want to come to the United States. Canada and Australia already do that. While the federal government should retain final say on issuing visas, we should unleash the potential for private citizens to energize our national mission abroad. Establish a U.S. Refugee Corps to recruit young American professionals to go around the world and be the face of our refugee program. The new Refugee Corps should streamline bureaucracy to process applications that today languish in red tape. Do it all with high-profile presidential leadership. Our open door can again be a source of pride for the U.S., hope for the oppressed and a golden chance to lead others by example.
© 2008 The Seattle Post-Intelligencer