Alabamians have been watching in recent weeks to see how Alabama will handle the question of refugee resettlement. Other Republican governors have been split on the question, with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee allowing refugees into his state and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ending his state’s participation in the program.
As Gov. Lee pointed out in public comments following his decision, there is a great deal of misunderstanding surrounding the issue.
Many Americans hear the word “refugee” and think of undocumented migrants seeking asylum at our southern border, unvetted and unsorted. In reality, individuals who are termed refugees and thus eligible for resettlement have already gone through an average of two years of vetting, first by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and then by the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).
People do not apply to be refugees. They are identified by the UNHCR based upon their displacement from their home country and a high degree of vulnerability: women, children, and those with significant medical needs rise to the top of the priority list. Ditto for those who have survived violence or torture. Once identified by the UN as qualified for consideration, the UNHCR conducts an extensive screening process to weed out individuals who might present a security risk.
The U.N. then refers those who qualify on to the US or other nations who offer resettlement opportunities. With the referral comes a great deal of data to aid the potential host nation in completing its own screening: iris scans, fingerprints, bio scans and records from numerous interviews and background checks.
The U.S. then conducts a second, equally thorough screening process to confirm the need for resettlement and rule out security risk.
For the lucky ones who survive this two-year gauntlet of questioning and waiting, this is where they are connected with one of nine non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for resettlement and subsequent support. Many of the NGOs are faith-based organizations like World Relief or the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
All of this occurs before any refugee is placed in a state like Alabama, Tennessee or Texas.
When asked why he chose to maintain Tennessee’s participation in the program, Lee defended the decision and shared about his wife’s work with female Kurdish refugees who have resettled in Nashville. The women became refugees after their husbands, translators for the U.S. military, were killed.
“I’m not turning my back on those people,” he said.
Lee, like all Republicans, believes in the need for a secure border and a safer, more orderly immigration process for our nation.
But he understands the difference between an illegal immigrant and a refugee. That difference is vast.
Alabama is a very red state largely because Alabama is a very Evangelical Christian state. We are bent toward conservatism because of our deeply held convictions about the value of human life, the necessity of religious liberty, and our distrust of big government.
But it’s those same core beliefs about the value of human life and the right to practice our faith as we see fit that should combust in the people of Alabama and set fire to a yearning to minister to women and children in crisis.
It’s that same gut-level desire to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ to the “least of these” that should have us crawling over one another trying to get to our nearest NGO to help with resettlement efforts.
To welcome refugees is not to risk ourselves. It is simply to give a tiny portion of our abundance of safety, economic opportunity and liberty to those who have none.
You and I will incur more risk getting on the freeway to get home from work tonight than we will at the hands of resettled refugees.
There is, of course, a discussion to be had about how many such people we can accommodate, and how to best accomplish resettlement and assimilation into our culture. But as a Christian — and in light of the facts, rather than unfounded fears ginned up by political rhetoric and an erroneous conflation of the illegal immigration problem with the refugee question — I believe that Tennessee Governor Lee’s persistence in offering a safe harbor to the hurting is correct.
I hope Alabama will join Tennessee and make a decision that fully reflects the Christian faith of which our state is so quick to boast.
Dana Hall McCain, a widely published writer on faith, culture, and politics, is Resident Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and educational organization based in Birmingham; learn more at alabamapolicy.org.