Treat refugees as real people, not policies

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The panel started at the heart of the matter, with images of the refugees themselves: washing ashore, hidden under car bumpers, fleeing in impossibly crowded boats and trains, suffering the indignities of encampments and forced exodus from their homes. Refugees from the Holocaust were juxtaposed with refugees from recent conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Central America. Most heartbreaking were the labels accompanying the photographs: Terrorists. Illegals. Rapists. Aliens.

The four-minute film set the tone for the serious May 18 policy discussion about the international refugee crisis, co-sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute and the Jewish Labor Committee.

Panelists at international refugee discussion"When particular ethnic, religious and racial groups are singled out to be ostracized and punished for their identity, those of us who are not of that identity have a moral obligation to be in the forefront of their defense," said Herb Magidson, a former AFT vice president and former president of the Jewish Labor Committee, especially in the climate of intolerance that has intensified over the course of current electoral rhetoric.

Shelly Pitterman, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' regional representative for the United States and the Caribbean, quantified the point, noting that there were 20 million refugees at this time last year, and 40 million internally displaced people. "Reactive, protectionist policies are either failing to reduce the number of refugees, undermining human rights, or both."

It is far better—"essential," he said—that public policy be guided by human rights. Best practices regarding remote education, energy use, logistics and accountability should be widespread. Funding must be set in place; resettlement responsibilities must be shared, with no single country providing the entire solution.

Although the magnitude of the refugee population is new, the concept reaches back to the 1800s, when HIAS, originally the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, was founded in response to the genocide of Russian Jews. In the fear surrounding refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, Mark Hetfield, HIAS president and CEO, hears echoes of a time when Jews were seen as a "security threat" when, in fact, they were victims in need of assistance. Hetfield was particularly critical of the United States' cap on Syrian refugee resettlement at 10,000 people: "It's not even a symbolic gesture," he said, especially when Canada has accepted some 26,000 refugees over just a few months.

Focusing on Central American refugees, Jennifer Podkul, director of policy for Kids in Need of Defense, shared some numbers: 68,000 children were apprehended at the Mexican border in 2014, and she expects as many or more this year. They are fleeing "unbearable" lives in Central America, where they are frequently surrounded by violent gangs that tell young people to "join or die" and force young girls to run drugs or worse. Violence keeps children from attending school and suppresses business; subsequent economic hardship creates desperation and violence; a vicious circle endures. Meanwhile, "immigrants" who cross the border are locked into detention centers or, if they are lucky enough to connect with family, live in fear of late-night raids by immigration officers ready to deport them or their parents.

"We need to treat this as a human refugee crisis," not an immigration issue, said Podkul. When the child soldiers of Sudan escaped, they were treated as victims of war and called "lost boys," she said. "We've been treating [Central American] children as illegal aliens. I think the United States can do better than that."

AFT President Randi Weingarten, who moderated the panel, asked what AFT members can do to help. "The teachers are already doing so much," said Hetfield. "Making sure their classrooms are safe places for refugee kids is the most important thing they can do."

Panelists agreed that "humanizing" the issue is key to gaining support for further refugee aid. Starting with education, said Weingarten, "you have to get into people's souls and hearts."

"Make it about children in our community, not about immigration," said Podkul.

"These so-called hoards, rapists, murderers," said Hetfield, "they're really just people who want to have a normal life."

Panelists also agreed that the heated anti-immigrant rhetoric prevalent in the presidential campaign of the presumptive Republican nominee is beyond troubling, and they will work to steer the narrative away from fear and demagoguery, toward empathy and hope.

[Virginia Myers]