Reflection this holiday season: Our founding principles require us to welcome refugees

This holiday season, in reflecting on what kind of society we are, I think it makes sense to examine the guiding principles of our nation and Commonwealth that require us to welcome refugees into our communities. The protection of liberty, equal opportunity for all, and social responsibility make up our very essence. In short, our democracy is a celebration of humanity. This is reflected in our makeup: a melting pot of cultures, faces, and stories from every corner of the world, so rich in its diversity that no other place on earth comes close to matching it, save for the planet itself.

Refugees from Afghanistan and Haiti seeking to relocate to the Commonwealth are doing so for reasons similar to those of many of our ancestors, experiences captured and immortalized by Emma Lazarus’ famous sonnet beckoning the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” At some point in the family history of many Pennsylvanians is an immigrant or refugee, traveling to this land in search of a better life. My own history includes ancestors from Germany and Ireland coming to Philadelphia more than 150 years ago. Many Americans share this special bond. The recent influx of refugees into the Commonwealth from Afghanistan is a continuation of this great tradition.  

Resettled Afghans bring with them a proud and storied history. Tempered by time and conflict, they are no strangers to great achievements and stubborn perseverance. Much like ours, contemporary Afghan culture is made up of a collection of tribal identities, each one unique and shaped from the historical residue of past internal and external forces alike – Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Imperial Britain, the Soviet Union, Taliban, to name a few, and now us, the United States.

Recent events have placed an enormous and terrible burden on the Afghan people. There can be no doubt that these events have been significantly influenced by the United States. We should affirm the goodwill and constructive achievements by American military personnel in Afghanistan, even if the ultimate result was not what we wished. America’s longest war has now come to a sudden and tumultuous end – swiftly undoing what good was achieved – leaving a war-torn and turbulent landscape, where high levels of corruption, violence, poverty, and child malnutrition persist. We cannot change what has already been done, but we can step up to help those impacted now. In Philadelphia, resettlement organization like Nationalities Service Center and HIAS are resettling close to 1,000 refugees and almost as many from other parts of the world.

The plight of the Afghan people is not the only humanitarian crisis, nor will it likely be the last, that obligates our concern. Simultaneously unfolding at our southern borders are asylum-seeking refugees from Latin America and Haiti. While the similarity in circumstances being faced by our southern neighbors did not arrive as a direct result of American military involvement, we need to recognize the United States' influence in shaping conditions currently being faced by the Haitian people.

The fact that remittances from Haitians living abroad (mostly in the U.S.) provides the primary source of foreign exchange and one-fifth of its GDP should be sufficient evidence to understand why there is a deluge of asylum-seekers from Haiti arriving at U.S. borders. Yet vocal opposition against accepting Haitian migrants exposes a misunderstanding that is telling of the difference in the way we treat people.

 The discrepancy in U.S. policy between Afghan and Haitian migrants presents a clear opportunity for the federal government to rectify our immigration system towards a clear, consistent, and fair framework.

Afghan and Haitian immigrants both fundamentally want and deserve the same thing: dignity, freedom, security, and the ability to contribute to our communities. Such indispensable human values are not foreign to Americans and should be cherished and embraced so our communities are provided eager patrons of the American Dream. History gives us ample evidence for the benefits of this relationship as time and time again our economy has been positively shaped by immigrants.

Immigration has long been the lifeblood of American society; it is embedded in our collective DNA. When William Penn settled the Province of Pennsylvania in 1682, he established a new form of government dedicated to religious tolerance and spiritual diversity. If we are to remain truly faithful to the tenets of the Commonwealth, then we must reckon with what is stopping us from helping those who need sanctuary and welcome our fellow human beings.

I invite everyone to do something as the year closes to recognize the struggles of people in both Afghanistan and Haiti, whether it is giving to resettlement and relief organizations, supporting returning veterans at your local VFW or American Legion, or both – because everyone reflects the American ideal in different ways.