US knows how to welcome refugees; let’s get to it

Syrian refugees cross the border from Macedonia to Serbia on Aug. 28.
Syrian refugees cross the border from Macedonia to Serbia on Aug. 28. The Associated Press file, August

Pope Francis is right: Prosperous nations should be taking in more refugees. The United States has the know-how and the compassion to lead the effort.

America has an unparalleled record of offering homes to asylum seekers. Since World War II, this country has welcomed wave after wave of people fleeing war, famine, oppression and persecution. We’ve embraced Hungarians, Poles, Koreans, Chinese, Ethiopians, Russians, Cambodians and Vietnamese, among others.

Those who might be wary of opening our doors to displaced people should look around. The Puget Sound region is rich in hard-working families who escaped desperate conditions abroad. They start businesses, insist that their children finish school and tend to be crazy about the nation that gave them sanctuary. Their patriotism often puts lifelong Americans to shame.

The Tacoma Community House, which helps newcomers learn English and otherwise get on their feet in the area, estimates that 80,000 immigrants currently live in Pierce County. We’re better for it.

There’s a strictly pragmatic argument for welcoming refugees and immigrants: They are job-oriented, and the United States needs more workers – if only to keep Medicare, Social Security and other entitlement programs solvent. The Germans know this. Like many European nations, Germany’s native-born population is shrinking; the country’s economic future depends on an influx of industrious outsiders. That’s one reason the German government has been accommodating heroic numbers of asylum-seekers.

The United States needn’t apologize for its record on refugees; few countries have extended themselves as much over the years. We have resettled more than 3 million displaced people since 1975 and have been generous with material assistance abroad.

America has spent $4 billion on shelter, schooling, food and other relief for Syrian refugees since Syria’s civil war began in 2011. We’ve accepted only about 1,500 Syrian asylum seekers, partly because the U.S. government carefully screens Middle Easterners and partly because displaced Syrians can’t trek or boat to the United States. But there are many refugee crises in the world, and most people seeking sanctuary are not Syrian. Congress has authorized resettling another 70,000 this year.

Still, the United States can do more for the 4 million who’ve fled the horrors of Syria. The immediate need is to expand resettlement programs in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which have been slammed with more than 3.6 million Syrians. If the people in the camps see asylum requests being processed efficiently, they are far less likely to risk perilous sea crossings or trust their lives to human smugglers.

The Obama administration has been rightly careful about vetting would-be immigrants from a part of the world where Islamic State and al-Qaida operate. But the U.S. government has the capacity to expedite its screening procedures. We don’t know what the right number of Syrians to let into the United States, but it’s surely much higher than 1,500.

Americans know how to welcome refugees; so does the Puget Sound region. In this part of the state, volunteers, churches and nonprofits will rise to the challenge as they have in the past.

Pope Francis has called on the Roman Catholic parishes of Europe to each embrace one family from Syria. One congregation, one family. A similar commitment from American faith communities and charitable groups would translate into a stunning humanitarian achievement.