A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.
As the United States government and its citizens wrestle with how to best process and resettle refugees, a reality that challenges our national identity as a "melting pot" of cultures has arrived: people who previously came here for help are now fleeing to our northern neighbor.
Though the story of these refugees has been widely reported in Canadian media, it's now making its way to the eyes and ears of American citizens. Earlier this week, The New York Times issued a report on the phenomenon, noting that Canadian border states like Manitoba have seen a "surge" of asylum seekers sneaking in from Minnesota and North Dakota in recent months.
This reality — that refugees who fled Somalia, Ghana, Djibouti, and other countries previously engulfed in civil war and unrest — have made it to America and are now fleeing north without the necessary documentation to do so, is one that should sadden any U.S. citizen.
And yet, many Americans are gleefully cheering as families spend days hiking through snow drifts and rural Canada in freezing temperatures, some losing fingers and toes to frostbite on the way, all so they can feel a sense of security they won't be sent back to their homelands.
Following President Donald Trump's executive order on immigration, which attempted to stop the flow of refugees from seven countries into the U.S., Canadian officials, lawyers and human rights activists say they may no longer be able to turn refugees or asylum seekers away when they're caught at the border. Currently, under a pact between Canada and the United States, these people would be sent back. But there are questions about how they will be treated in the States.
"When Canada sends someone back to the U.S., we are saying we have confidence the U.S. is going to protect them if they need protection. We don't see how we can have confidence to say that in the current context," Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council For Refugees, told The New York Times.
Bashir Khan, a Winnipeg lawyer, insisted that people should "be honest" about what's happening: in his interview with The New York Times, he said asylum seekers in the United States are being incarcerated, not given legal aid, and left struggling to escape prison because they didn't know how to fill out asylum forms. Trump's executive order paused overall refugee settlement and barred Syrian refugees from entering the country indefinitely."
As an American citizen, it's tough to overstate the shame and sadness I feel when I read these words. Our nation's history with immigrants and refugees has dark and shameful tales as well as uplifting and empathetic acts of good will. Some 11 million undocumented immigrants from all over the world are here now, and they make up about five percent of the American workforce in 2014, according to Pew.
Considering this history, it's heartbreaking to think that the wealthiest nation in the world is now closing its doors on the world's most vulnerable people. It's even worse to imagine that the ones who were fortunate enough to make it here are in such fear, and feel so threatened, that they must flee north.
Not long after I read these reports, President Trump tweeted that he was meeting with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. I responded to the tweet asking if they would be discussing the reports that refugees were fleeing the United States for Canada.
Here is a sampling of the responses I got from Trump's followers on Twitter:
"Why discuss that?! That's a great thing -you can go too if you're going to miss them so much -buh-bye."
"If that were true it would be a blessing. Much more likely is radicals freely invited to Canada will have easy access to USA."
"Why not? It's about time Canada steps up!!!"
These answers were both saddening and frustrating.
First of all, refugees are not a danger to American citizens. President Trump's questioning of the vetting that refugees go through stands in stark contrast to the already "extreme" vetting measures taken before a refugee is allowed in the United States. Comparisons to crime committed by refugees in Europe are irrelevant, both because all people — not just refugees — commit crime, and also because Europe's vetting system is nothing like America's.
The process a refugee officer puts applicants through to get here is no secret, and it is as effective as you might imagine. Their biometric data is taken — meaning they do things like have scan irises and take fingerprints. The FBI, CIA, Department of Defense, the NSA, and counter-terrorism groups all run background checks on the person, scan the aforementioned data, and dig into their history. They cross check information with terrorism watchlists. They run the biometric data through international criminal databases. They call the contacts in the refugee's phones. They check the person's social media. They do a series of in-person interviews. The whole process takes up to two years before a person is considered for entry.
And guess what? It works: that's why zero people admitted to the U.S. as refugees have committed a terrorist attack since 1980.
Even worse, as my Twitter mentions show, some seem to feel threatened by refugees. Others believe that Canada is finally "stepping up," when in reality Canada has done far more to aid during the worst humanitarian crisis of our time: over a four month span between now and November, Canada has welcomed 40,000 refugees from Syria alone, more than the 14,000 Syrian refugees America have taken in since 2012.
Despite that, in yesterday's joint press conference between Prime Minister Trudeau and President Trump, neither made a mention of the millions of refugees still seeking safety and security in our two nations during their opening remarks.
As Americans face challenges of security and immigration, we should also face the reality that today, we are not doing our part to welcome and protect the people who are suffering most across the globe. This time in world history will be better documented than any other before it, and we'd be wise to consider what the generations to come will read about our contribution.
Update: This post's wording regarding the number of refugees who have committed terror attacks has been clarified. No immigrants who have undergone America's refugee vetting process have committed a terror attack since 1980.