cuba

Cuban refugees stranded on a makeshift raft float in the Atlantic Ocean, about halfway to Key West, Fla., in 1994. The author says that, among other gestures toward immigrants and refugees, the U.S. welcomed boatloads of Cubans fleeing the Castro regime, earning it the admiration of the world. Such efforts still can. 

Chaos at the airport. Body parts in an airplane wheel well. Children trampled by a panicked crowd. No matter what you think about the 20-year U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, its shabby ending has tarnished our country’s image.

Yet, there’s something we can do to help repair that damage: We can get rid of our hostility toward immigrants, especially refugees.

Last year, the U.S. accepted only 6,400 asylum-seekers, down from 85,000 four years ago. You see, our former president didn’t much like foreigners coming here for any reason, especially from Muslim countries. He also degraded the government’s ability to process immigrant visas. What used to take months now takes years. And when you’re trying to get out of Kabul because you’re on a Taliban hit list, speed is rather important.

America has long been a nation of immigrants. Nearly 15 percent of us were born someplace else, about the same proportion as in 1870. The U.S. didn’t distinguish very closely between immigrants and refugees until 1980, when we adopted international rules and definitions.

Since then, we’ve taken in more than 3 million escapees from war, oppression, persecution and natural disaster. And that was only about 10 percent of our total foreign intake. Even many Americans who oppose immigration make an exception for bona fide refugees.

That bona fide thing can be tricky. Most of the 400,000 migrants who crossed our southern border last year were seeking refugee status because of violence, persecution, political instability and a string of natural disasters in their home countries. Yet, anti-immigrant groups and politicians insisted these people were mere “economic” migrants, looking to escape poverty and collect federal benefits (for which, incidentally, they’re not eligible).

The people fleeing Afghanistan face few such suspicions. Indeed, they are the most deserving of would-be U.S. residents: translators and other people who helped American troops, journalists and aid agencies. Also, Afghan journalists and educators, women’s rights activists, LGBT folks and others who face almost certain retribution, even death, if they stay.

The Biden administration has been working to reduce the visa backlog. It’s flying planeloads of Afghans to overseas military bases for preliminary screening. About 100,000 have gotten out so far, and thousands more are leaving every day. But, the International Rescue Committee says many thousands more Afghans are in need of asylum.

And when some of these refugees make it to the U.S., they will face the usual anti-immigrant objections: Foreigners take jobs from other Americans (serious economists disagree) or bring COVID and other diseases with them (refugees must pass stricter medical testing than most people in the U.S. do).

Or maybe they’ll impose Shariah law on us (hasn’t happened, even though 4 million Muslims already live here), or they’re terrorists (actually, they’re fleeing terrorists and they’re vetted for subversive tendencies more closely than you are), or they’re being let in largely to swell the Democratic vote (tell that to America’s large and heavily Republican population of Cuban refugees).

Studies show that asylum-seekers, and immigrants generally, boost the economy, enrich American culture and embody the kind of family values most Americans applaud. Indeed, refugees have repaid their debt to America handsomely. Among them: Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, Salvador Dali, Henry Kissinger Madeleine Albright, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gloria Estefan and, from Afghanistan, novelist Khaled Hosseini (“The Kite Runner”).

Worried about the upfront cost of bringing in a few hundred thousand Afghans? Rest easy. The savings from one year of the American military effort in Afghanistan — around $18 billion — would cover the resettlement of 1.2 million refugees. U.S. officials expect far fewer. We can do this.

Heck, we’ve done it. The U.S. took in 3 million refugees from World War II. We kept Berlin alive with a Kabul-style airlift three years later. We welcomed boatloads of Cubans fleeing the Castro regime, thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Iraqis escaping America’s wars there. And, until Donald Trump derailed the plan in 2017, the Berkshires was set to accept 50 refugees from war-torn Syria.

Such gestures earned us the admiration of the world. They still can. America has a reputation to uphold, the one that’s inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Maybe we couldn’t bring peace to Afghanistan in 20 years of trying, but we can still welcome its poor, its tired, its huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We can still lift that lamp beside the golden door.

It’s what we do. We’re Americans.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and co-chairman of the advisory board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.