Sunday, December 20, 2015


Over the last few weeks the partisan banter related to Syrian refugees has reached a fevered pitch.    I sense it’s time to be very candid and maybe even break a few pastoral confidences.   I spent 19 years serving East Africa in church development, education, and media.  About 10 years ago I started to conceptualize I may have a USA posting.   At that point I met every immigrant I could when I visited America. When I took a USA posting 3 years ago I went full bore on meeting as many immigrants as possible. I'd guess I've interacted with over 1,000 and maybe as many as 2,000 immigrants.     With many immigrants their context is new to me, and I have lots of cultural learning to do.     However, if they are from Africa’s Great Lakes I know the context well.   The region has a history of conflict.   Some come to America as refugees.  I've twice interacted with an African immigrant that I quickly realized most in his “home” nation would consider a war criminal. I've a couple other times had some strong suspicions. I was struck with how naive the American immigration system can be. I've felt that in the political rhetoric of the day the vetting process was inadequate.    With these experiences a terrorist entering the United States under the cover of refugee status seems a distinct possibility.  

I've also been friends and maybe even the pastor for USA embassy personnel who do the immigration interviews. I've been amazed at the pace the work. My conversations that lead me to judgment take hours. Their conversations and work pace only allow a few minutes. They are horribly overworked. Time constraints will mean they miss details. All I've known have leaned heavily towards a sense of when in doubt don't issue a visa.   My experience with USA government immigration and refugees sees naivety grown by partisan banter with an under resourced staff.

Yet, I also see that immigrants represent the values that most resonate with my interpretation of the ideals of America.  They are more likely to be employed than native born Americans. Asian and African immigrants are twice as well educated as native born Americans. Almost all immigrant groups have lower rates of divorce. They have more kids. Their children are more likely to be born to married parents.  They attend church more often. They reason in community. Their homes are multi-generational. They have higher rates of entrepreneurial success. Though I'm currently a political abstainer I tend to vote conservative. I find my conservative family values are more represented in immigrants to America than in native born Americans.

The partisan banter about immigration strikes me as paranoid. It’s driven by fear. My boss told me over and over again to fear not. His answer to fear was to act out of sacrifice, courage, and compassion. Love always overcomes fear.

Pragmatically it is a minuscule number of refugees who are really terrorists. Yes, the vetting process should be improved. Hire more people. Slow down the interviews. Get some Americans who well know the cultural details as consultants. Yet, recognize the relationship networks that bring potential terrorists to America are already here. The USA economy and low birth rates of native born Americans created the surge in immigration. The immigration river can't be stopped, but it can be stewarded. Closing borders and banter only fuels the social and economic reasons that create the frustrations that fuel terrorism. 

Another pragmatic is to recognize most Iraqi and Syrian refugees are fleeing the terror of ISIS. Allowing them to become part of the American experience will strengthen the security of America. They bring knowledge that can be channeled to make America's security forces wiser. Practically when refugees find education, employment, and opportunity in the USA the internet gives them a voice of reason back "home."

My American Evangelical family when you are tempted to blindly bash Syrian refugees please read your Bible.  It shows that refugee communities have always changed their “home” nations.  Just follow Daniel, Nehemiah, and Paul's refugee journey.

As an American Evangelical whose bottom line is evangelism what price will we pay if our immigration policy prevents a Daniel, Nehemiah, or Paul from entering our borders?   Both discernment and compassion are required to process Syrian refugees.