Will the plight of Afghanis recast the debate about refugees?

Liberal groups have twisted the meaning of the word to include illegal immigrants who weren’t fleeing for their lives. The current crisis puts that false claim in perspective.

Hundreds of people in New York demand that the United States accept all Afghan people seeking asylum as U.S. troops withdraw from the country after 20 years, August 2021. Credit: Luigi Morris/Shutterstock.
Hundreds of people in New York demand that the United States accept all Afghan people seeking asylum as U.S. troops withdraw from the country after 20 years, August 2021. Credit: Luigi Morris/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In recent years, many Jewish groups have redoubled their advocacy for more liberal immigration laws. This was rooted in remembrance of the immigrant forebears of the Jewish community, as well as a belief that America is a nation that should also have the “welcome” sign up to any who wish to avail themselves of a land of opportunity, no matter where they come from.

That spirit explains why so many Jews have stepped forward in recent days to donate or advocate for the absorption of refugees from Afghanistan fleeing from the Taliban, who took over that country in the wake of the Biden administration’s precipitate abandonment of its allies. The emerging debate about the fate of tens of thousands of people who aided the American war effort who may have been left behind and those who now seek new homes in the United States is not only a measure of the nation’s compassion and decency. It should also involve a reassessment of the way many Jewish groups have essentially undermined the case for refugee resettlement by wrongly applying the term to people who should have never been called refugees.

The debate about immigration has led much of the organized Jewish world to take what has increasingly become a hardline stance that regards virtually any restrictions on entry to the country as xenophobic, as well as to label efforts to enforce existing laws as immoral.

Yet this debate is not merely a matter of support for immigrants, whether they have legal permission to enter America or not. Integral to the work of Jewish groups like HIAS has been an effort to effectively redefine what it means to be a refugee. In the past, those who formally sought asylum as refugees did so because they were directly fleeing persecution and/or threats to their lives. Those Jews who attempted, largely in vain, to enter the United States and other Western countries during the Holocaust are classic examples of genuine refugees. The same applies to those who fled countries that oppressed whole classes and groups of people, such as the millions of Jews seeking to leave the former Soviet Union.

In recent years, however, part of the effort to mobilize support for those seeking to enter the United States without waiting in line and going through the process of gaining legal permission was a push to call many of them refugees, rather than—though almost all actually were—economic migrants. In effect, the refugee label was placed on the large number of people from Central America flooding the southern border of the United States. Some of them may qualify as refugees because they are labeled for death by political foes or organized crime. Yet the overwhelming majority are leaving their homes for the same reason people have always come to the United States throughout its history; they want a new life in a prosperous country where political and economic freedom is taken for granted.

One may argue, as some Jews effectively do, that America’s gates should be open to all those who wish to enter, regardless of the economic consequences. Since the political consensus to change the laws to that effect is clearly lacking, liberal groups have instead become supporters of those who enter the country illegally. They’ve also insisted that these largely bogus claims for refugee asylum should be accepted.

Pro-immigration groups have no qualms about this because they believe that compassion for those wanting to enter the country outweighs any other consideration. Jewish organizations pepper their advocacy with frequent allusions to Judaism’s admonitions to welcome the stranger and religious texts that can be read as justifying their positions.

Unfortunately, the effort to stretch the meaning of refugee to include those who are not by any reasonable definition of the term actual refugees has come with a cost. It has fueled skepticism about the cause of refugee absorption at a time when support for immigration has become controversial because many Americans see it as interchangeable in some contexts with advocacy for open borders.

Moreover, those Jewish groups who made this cause their own have done so in a manner that not only places them in opposition to the rule of law. By making false analogies between those seeking to evade the laws of democracy to Jews hiding from or fleeing the Nazis, they have also cheapened the memory of the Holocaust.

By contrast, a desire to welcome Afghan refugees ought to be universal. It’s not just that those wanting out of the nightmare of life under the Islamist tyrants of the Taliban deserve our sympathy. Many of them are also people who have risked their lives by assisting American and NATO forces during the 20 years of war in that country since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or who took on roles in their country that were possible only as long as American allies ruled. Sadly, the inept U.S. withdrawal that triggered the collapse of the Afghan government happened in such a manner as to leave behind tens of thousands of people who have a legitimate right to American help.

Nevertheless, there are voices raised in opposition even to this undeniably sympathetic group. Some on the right, including people like Fox News host Tucker Carlson have embraced a position that is so hostile to immigration in general that even these betrayed Afghan allies are seen as unwelcome, despite the fact that among the prominent advocates of welcoming the Afghans is former President Donald Trump. It is reasonable to ask that anyone coming from Afghanistan or any country with so many Islamic extremists and terrorists be properly vetted before being allowed to enter the United States. But denying those who are vetted (as most of those who have helped America, in fact, are) a chance for a new life in America isn’t merely churlish, it’s also dishonorable.

Those Jews who are rightly championing the cause of getting Afghan refugees to safety and then admitting them to the United States need to understand that their plight undermines their previous attempts to brand Central American migrants with the same label. Just as the comparisons between those understandably wanting out of countries like Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador to Jews fleeing the Holocaust were absurd, the same can be said about analogizing those migrants with the Afghans.

While the disastrous end of their country’s involvement in Afghanistan is something about which Americans should feel ashamed, the attention given to refugees who do manage to get out should help us refocus discussions about immigration, and especially, what it means to apply for refugee status. Those liberal groups like HIAS that continue to pretend there is no difference between genuine refugees and those who merely want to cut the line for legal entry into the United States are only making it harder to ensure that the Afghans are able to escape an Islamist hell.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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