The Universal Notebook: Refugees are our responsibility

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The hopeless mess the United States is making in the Middle East was tragically emphasized on Oct. 3 when U.S. war planes mistakenly bombed a hospital in Afghanistan for an hour, reducing the Doctors Without Borders hospital to rubble and killing 22 people.

A less incendiary, but equally dramatic sign of the turmoil the U.S. has helped cause in the Middle East, are the millions of refugees now fleeing both the murderous Assad regime in Syria and the equally murderous Islamic State forces that rose to power after the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq and set off a chaos of slaughter and civil war.

We like to think of ourselves as the good guys in this terrible turmoil, but all sides in the Middle East have blood on their hands.

Given our complicity in the violence in the Middle East, you’d think the least the U.S. could do would be to open its arms to the flood of refugees. Yet of the estimated 4 million Syrian refugees, the U.S. has thus far only accepted something like 1,500. In response to the refugee crisis, the Obama administration has proposed increasing the total number of refugees the U.S. accepts from 70,000 a year to 85,000 a year in 2016 and 100,000 the following year. That’s just not good enough.

Last month, 20 former U.S. officials sent a letter to the president and Congress stating, “We urge that you announce support for a refugees admissions goal of 100,000 Syrian refugees on an extraordinary basis, over and above the current worldwide refugee ceiling of 70,000. With some four million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries and hundreds of thousands of Syrian asylum seekers in Europe, this would be a responsible exercise in burden sharing.”

At the same time, 162 aid groups sent a similar petition letter to President Obama.

“In light of the continuing escalation of the dire refugee crises in the Middle East, contributing to the largest number of refugees since World War II,” they wrote, “we urge the United States to increase the number of refugees that we resettle to 200,000 for FY 16, with 100,000 of them being Syrian. This would not be the first time that the United States proudly carries out our historic tradition of welcoming refugees in large numbers. After the end of the wars in Southeast Asia, the United States resettled 111,000 Vietnamese refugees in 1979 and then essentially doubled that number to 207,000 in 1980.”

Given the nasty xenophobic nativism now raging through the country, whipped up by the likes of Donald Trump, it is probably too much to hope that America will open its arms, its pocketbooks and its homes to people fleeing endless wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. But this refugee crisis should remind us that Americans were once more compassionate and generous that we are today.

It was not until 1875, a century after its founding, that the U.S. first imposed restrictions on immigrants. The Page Act prohibited the entry of undesirables, defined as criminals, prostitutes and forced Chinese laborers. These prohibitions came on the heels of an ugly chapter in U.S. history during the 1850s, when the Know Nothing Party, which would have appealed to Trump and his followers, arose to try to limit the increase of Irish and German Catholics in the country.

Currently, there an estimated 41.3 million immigrants living in the United States, or about 13 percent of the population. That percentage was even higher, however between 1870 and 1910, when 14.7 percent of people in this country were immigrants. Projections are that a historic high of 14.9 percent will be reached around 2024.

Other than Native Americans, we’re all children of immigrants in this country, so we should be comfortable with a much higher percentage of foreign-born residents.

The U.S. can be generous when it wants to be or when it suits its needs, such as in 1942, when we let 5 million Mexicans in to tend our crops during World War II, or 1948, when we accepted 200,000 refugees displaced by WWII.

Pope Francis has asked all Catholic parishes and monasteries in Europe to take in a refugee family. If all the churches, temples and mosques in the United States did the same that would take care of 356,000 refugee families.

Most immigrants, of course, are not refugees. But if Germany, a country of 80 million people, can take 800,000 refugees this year, we can do a heck of a lot better than 70,000. We have a moral obligation to help those is dire need, especially those whose misfortune is partly our doing.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.