Ellis Island 1912

On Immigration and ISIS

Immigration is good. Full stop. Illegal or otherwise; from war-torn regions or peaceful ones; no matter what the religion or background of the immigrants. It’s merely a fearful reaction of modern xenophobia to think otherwise. And on top of that, rejecting immigrants from the Middle East in this particular case is giving terrorists exactly what they want.

The recent outpouring of reactionary, fearful closed-mindedness makes me quite sad, not only as a human being with compassion, but as someone who hasn’t forgotten history. Even recent history—the world since 2001—is enough of an education to help us make much more reasonable decisions about our way forward than most pundits, and a vocal segment of the public, would have you believe.

There. Now that I have your attention, and maybe offended some of you already (pushing buttons is great 1st Amendment fun!), let’s dive into the depths of this issue with a bit more nuance.

Note: I will herein refer to ISIS/ISIL/IS as “Daesh” (technically, more accurately transcribed and pronounced as “Da’ish”), as has been suggested by many. It’s one minor way to delegitimize the terror group.

Although volumes could be written on the intersection of violence, terror, immigration, refugees, demographics, economics, and religion—volumes have already been written—I’m going to confine my thoughts here to (relatively) brief, evidence- and rationality-backed, long-term-outlook reminders.

Let’s get this out of the way first: The Governors who’ve stated they will deny Syrian refugees are shortsighted, ignorant, fear-pandering assholes.

Firstly, they have no authority whatsoever to restrict the State Department from bringing refugees into these United States, and they have no authority whatsoever to restrict refugees or immigrants from traveling to their states. These are basic, Constitutionally-based, long-established facts of our wonderful system of government and the rule of law. Refer to the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 4), the Refugee Act of 1980, US v Guest (1966); and Saenz v Roe (1999), for starters.

And don’t even get me started on the chatter about a “religious test” for refugees. That’s some of the most despicable, un-American, un-Constitutional, backwards bullshit I’ve heard spewed from the mouth of a politician in years. It is startling how little self-awareness the “leaders” who say these things are, since they don’t seem to realize how much they sound like an American version of the Taliban, but even worse, in some respects.

Thankfully, many people on all sides of the political spectrum understand that to deny the refugees would be to deny our American values—in fact, it would be denying basic human rights.

As for the myths (yes, myths) that immigrants and/or refugees cause economic damage or enact violence, I’ll address those ideas below. Needless to say, this cowardly political move by many governors is pitiful.

Of course, these attitudes are nothing new. Those decrying allowing in refugees (or for that matter, any other sort of immigrants) are simply participating in a longstanding American tradition of fear-based, shortsighted bigotry. Just ask the Irish in the 19th century, or Jews before and after WWII, or any number of other ethnic groups throughout the entire history of the US. (Or ask George Takei about his perspective on how Japanese were treated during WWII).

Thankfully, our Founding Fathers, and other leaders since, have remembered that our nation is absolutely built by and made strong through immigrants of all stripes and beliefs (which is one reason I chose a picture of Ellis Island in 1912 to represent this post).

George Washington had it right:

“The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respected Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges…”

As did Emma Lazarus, whose poetry is still a potent reminder for all who view the Statue of Liberty:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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!”

But, it’s easy to pass off such ideas as ideals. So let’s get into even more of the nitty-gritty details….

“But what about our Veterans?” is a popular response to talk about refugees and immigrants; “But what about our poor?” These are very good questions. And I agree—to a point. We absolutely must do more to help those who we’ve sent off to fight our battles. And we absolutely would do well to help those in need within our own borders. But it’s purely a false choice to say “we can’t take in immigrants or refugees unless we take care of our own veterans and poor first”. The reality is more complicated, especially in politics.

It’s also telling that in many (although not all) cases, we only seem to care about our veterans and poor when it helps our particular political arguments. We, as a nation, started talking more about our own needy only when illegal immigration became a public topic. And now, with refugees in the public consciousness, there’s suddenly a new push to help our own. Kind of telling.

So please, do something to help the needy! It starts with us, individually. Whether in terms of contacting our representatives to encourage shifting funds to veterans- and homeless- programs, or by arranging help yourself in your hometown—it starts with us.

But this has nothing to do with denying refugees or limiting immigration. Welcoming more people into our great nation only serves to make us stronger, adds to the economy (see below), and encourages more and more people to support each other and build community.

Immigrants and refugees only contribute to our economy and greatness in the long run.

First, I’ll mention a practical bit that many overlook, in light of the many governors clamoring to deny refugees access to our amazing nation—refugees are not a financial burden on states. There has been money Congressionally designated for public assistance and state reimbursement for expenses of settling refugees for a very long time, and it’s not costing anything extra.

Secondly, and more importantly, let’s look at the bigger picture of demographics. It’s easy to overlook long term trends when there are so many shorter-term cycles to pay attention to (e.g. we see this problem all the time with discussions about climate change). But long-term demographic effects are real, well-studied, and go a long way to explaining a lot of what’s on the news [PDF].

One particularly important point to remember is that immigration is one of the factors that’s helping to keep the USA as a superpower for the near future. We’re one of the few developed nations that isn’t suffering from demographically-damaging population aging, let alone economy-destroying population decline, and immigration is a big part of that [PDF].

Meahwhile, Japan is in big trouble—they’re back in a recession and demographics is a huge part of it. China (and to a lesser extent, India) are in for rocky times ahead thanks to their aging populations and imbalanced gender-ratios. Italy and other Western European nations are poised for further downturns if they don’t have more babies. And Russia is just plain dying.

This isn’t new information. [PDF]

The thing is, more than most other factors, it’s actually immigration (illegal as well as legal) that’s keeping the US in a good position going forward. Latin American immigrants filled a population gap during Generation X, and continued immigration from multiple regions is helping to offset the aging population and declining birth rate of non-immigrant Americans.

People also enjoy shouting about immigrants (illegal, refugees, or otherwise) “taking our jobs”. Well, just examine the grand experiment that several Southern states enacted regarding this very topic. Fact is, immigrant populations are economically complementary, not competitive. Illegal immigrants do work that even the lowest income-bracket Americans are loathe to do (which is an issue in itself, but that’s another blog post…). Not to mention that legal immigrants and refugees have made numerous major contributions to our great nation and to our economy. (Steve Jobs’ father was a refugee from Syria!)

Immigrants and refugees are not violent and don’t increase crime.

Since 9/11, the majority of terrorist acts on US soil have been perpetrated by domestic, non-Muslim groups and individuals, including many of the worst attacks. Police and federal law enforcement all label domestic right-wing extremism as MUCH more of a threat than any imported variety.

Even the Tsarnaev brothers are much more home-grown terrorists than externally radicalized ones—they grew up in the United States and their ideas were formed here (although psychological factors due to their youth in war-torn Chechnya are also significant…But just another reason to reach out and bring people into our communities and actually connect with them).

And I won’t even get into the fact that we’re still living in the statistically safest time to be alive as a human being in history, despite the constant threats we feel from the 24/7 sensationalist new cycle in this Age of Information…That’ll be for another blog post, too.

If anything, refugees and immigrants of all types and nationalities are significantly LESS likely to be involved in any sort of crime, violent or otherwise. Opening our arms and creating spaces where people are welcome makes things better, and safer, for everyone.

Again, believing that every refugee is a violent terrorist or sleeper agent is EXACTLY what groups like Daesh want you to believe, since it sews discord, weakens international bonds, and creates more disaffected people to prey upon.

The very fact that Paris attackers have few, if any, ties to the current wave of immigration sweeping Europe just further underlines this point. They know what they’re doing in terms of propaganda.

Don’t give the terrorists what they want.

Daesh wants us to fear immigrants and vilify the Islamic world.

By denying immigrants and refugees, we are literally handing Daesh exactly what it wants—further strife, more disaffected and disenfranchised people from whom to draw more desperate fighters. Anti-Muslim bigotry is tantamount to giving such radical terror groups military aid (which we have already done, more directly, time after time in the past). We are letting the despicable terrorists win by allowing them to divide us—“divide and conquer” is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and we’re falling for it.

They’re actually winning a PR-war against us by inciting our unaddressed fears, and using people that want nothing to do with their hideous ideology to do it.

We (the West, and the US in particular) created Daesh, and perpetuating cycles of violence is simply not the answer if we want an actual, long-term solution to such violent nonsense.

Although powers have fought proxy wars since nations were first formed, and despite the US [as an entity, mostly] intending the best with all it has done throughout the world in the 20th century and into the 21st, that’s no excuse for not learning from our mistakes and taking a more long-term approach going forward.

It may be cliché, and I know many will immediately dismiss this and brand me naïve, but violence is not the answer any more, especially in this Information Age, and especially regarding the Middle East. The cycles will not—cannot!—end until someone steps up and acts like an adult. Until the powers at be actually begin to act like they deserve our support and think of more than their pockets and the next election cycle.

Please ask Israel and Palestine (as but one example) how “eye-for-an-eye” is working out for them.

Containment is a part of the solution for the Daesh problem, and it doesn’t require vindictive, vengeful destruction. They will burn themselves out, as all regimes built on fear ultimately do, but only if we stop feeding them.

Allowing, if not outright encouraging immigration from these troubled areas is another powerful tool that can destroy these radical groups. As outlined above, immigration betters the economy, helps to build a worldwide community, and takes the teeth out of the ideologies of groups like Daesh.

There’s a reason why it’s a Trope that the bad guys always end up losing—because they mistrust each other and have no regard for themselves, others, or life in general. And there’s a reason why it’s a Trope that the good guys can’t help but win as long as they stick together, open their arms with love and trust, and go about making the world better for everyone.

The Golden Rule is a practical tool to win this war.

These ideas are not new.

Especially with regards to immigration and refugees, the Bible has many words of wisdom for us. Whether in the Old Testament

33 When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt…. [Leviticus 19:33-34]

Or the New:

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” [Romans 12:14-21; emphasis mine]

The wisdom we need to harness has been shared by every master, philosophy, religion, and holy text throughout history and the world. “Treat others how you would want to be treated” isn’t some abstract, woo-woo, hippy-dippy bullshit, it’s an actual, practical methodology. What is useless, though, is just sitting back and “praying” for Paris, or Beirut, or the poor, etc. Do something. Even if it’s just bettering yourself as a person.

Peace starts with us. You and I, here and now.

When individual relationships are healthier, then our families will be healthier. When our families are healthier, then our communities will be healthier. When our communities are healthier, then our nations will be healthier. And when our nations are healthier, then we can enjoy greater happiness and prosperity on Earth than humanity has ever seen.

Gandhi was completely right:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

It starts with us. But practically so. Take steps to understand and love yourself, so that you can understand and love your neighbor. And then also take steps to actually help your neighbors. Form a community. Choose another way other than conflict. Other than falling prey to our basest fears.

…And if you don’t want to pay attention to my words, or those of the Bible writers, or of the US Presidents, or of Gandhi…Then how about the Dalai Lama’s:

“People want to lead a peaceful lives. The terrorists are short-sighted, and this is one of the causes of rampant suicide bombings. We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.

“We need a systematic approach to foster humanistic values, of oneness and harmony. If we start doing it now, there is hope that this century will be different from the previous one. It is in everybody’s interest. So let us work for peace within our families and society, and not expect help from God, Buddha or the governments.”

Such a solution is not easy. And it is not quick. And it will take concerted effort by a large portion of humanity. But the rewards are beyond question.

I hope this all helps you, my dear reader, to ponder, explore, open up, and grow.

May you all have all the peace, harmony, contentment, and wellbeing you desire.


I highly recommend exploring all of the various links I provide in essay above, but if you’re an ardent bibliovore and yearn for yet more content, these additional references should sate your appetite:

More linguistic background on calling ISIS Daesh: Free Word Center

More info on why immigration, illegal or otherwise, is good for us all, from CNN Money of all places!

The Age Curve by Kenneth Gronbach is an excellent book that delves into how demographic shifts explain (and predict) so much of what happens in society.

“What ISIS Really Wants”—an excellent and in-depth exploration of what Daesh is all about. Worth the time to read: The Atlantic

“Digging Down to the Roots of Radicalism”—a solid examination of the origins of terror, with specific reference to Paris: Good Magazine

Lastly, but most definitely not least, “7 Thoughts on Syrian Refugees & the Gospel”—some meditations from a devout Christian on the topic at hand: Josh Howerton (Blog)