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Commentary & Opinion

A new year for refugees

Dr. Henry Greenberg, of Columbia University’s Department of Epidemiology in its Mailman School of Public Health, copied me on a note he wrote dear friends of ours:

“Your achievements are wonderful to behold, and … be thankful for. You are the proof that … the US, by [accepting newcomers from the world over, which] has traditionally been the source of our strength, remains the single best policy we have ever adopted. That it is under threat is one of the great shames of the age.”

Absolutely. Our friends were imprisoned in their home country for providing medical care to people who suffered prejudice and discrimination. Worse, at international conferences, our friends described how they reached and provided care to people afraid to come out of the shadows. There was a local and international effort to get the brothers out. After the younger brother was released and came back to Albany, we stood around with many mutual friends praying until his brother was freed and came back here. The two were honored and recognized in Washington, Hollywood and worldwide. One blushingly showed me where the actress Sharon Stone kissed him while presenting him with one of those awards.

They continued working with the medical community here and abroad to assist people otherwise consigned to early graves by the combination of serious illness and devastating prejudice. MDs when they first came to the US, one got a degree in Public Health here and then added a degree in human rights from Oxford. I challenged him about why he was getting yet another degree. But it enabled him to speak much more knowledgeably about patients’ rights and to expand the network of people who were happy to help. The brothers employed many here and abroad while bringing honor and skill to America, and extended the reach of American medicine.

I’m describing the work of one extraordinary pair of brothers. But, as Henry explained, they’re an example of a process that has worked well for us. America’s scientific leadership advanced when the greats of German science arrived as refugees and added their cutting-edge skills and knowledge to ours. In field after field, American prominence and dominance benefitted from that combination. The issue isn’t who was better before but who had more when combined. I don’t even want to think about what would happen now if refugees starting finding other places to bring their skills.

Henry adds that “a friend whose father sold flowers in the Alexandria fish market … [became] health commissioner of Detroit in his early 30s. Countries like ours, with native-born fertility less than replac[ing our population] should lust after a Syrian who will travel a thousand miles of peril to start over.”

I know many fear competition from immigrants, but there are many ways to protect people, and economists tell us refugees actually create jobs and fuel development of American business. They stimulate jobs for the housing, transportation, goods, services and English teachers they’ll need. They can help with many things we need, like daycare so parents can go to work. Some will start local businesses or launch businesses with wider footprints. Whatever we spend on immigrants comes back into the community. With a little local planning it can be a win-win for everyone.

To me, inviting refugees is a moral issue. Too many die from civil war, corruption and lawlessness. Kudos to all the groups helping to settle Afghan refugees locally. Let’s make it a Happy New Year for them and for us.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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