Keeping the Doors Open

Why should the United States remain open to refugees?

The world is currently in the midst of a refugee crisis. Almost sixty-four million individuals were displaced by violence by the end of 2015. Given the world’s population of 7.2 billion, this means that one out of every 112 persons worldwide was a refugee of some sort, including those who are displaced within the borders of their own countries and those officially seeking refuge in another country. Indeed, the number of individuals who are displaced has increased fourfold in four years according to a 2015 report by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Not surprisingly, 4.9 million of those displaced are Syrians fleeing a half decade-long civil war.

The decision about whether or not to admit refugees into the US is politically charged. Donald Trump was elected, in part, because of his very sharp anti-immigrant rhetoric, including towards Muslims. On the campaign trail Trump called for a complete ban on immigrants from countries that have been compromised by terrorism and twice since taking office has signed “Muslim bans” that were promptly blocked by the courts.  

Does the United States have an ethical obligation to open its borders to refugees from all nations? I believe the answer is yes, especially for those from Syria. In what follows, I will first offer observations from my own involvement in working with asylum seekers. I will then examine some of the arguments made to support limiting or totally curtailing immigration into the US and then show why these arguments lack merit. In light of the benefits the US has derived from immigration and its historical commitments to human rights, the US should not curtail immigration.

Real-World Impacts: People, not just policy

I became interested in issues of immigration and asylum roughly a decade ago. At that time, I began performing psychological evaluations of asylum seekers, which is vital in terms of increasing petitioners’ success in being granted asylum status. When an individual has a psychological evaluation to support a petition for asylum, the chances of being granted asylum increase from approximately 30 percent to almost 90 percent. In 2010, colleagues and I founded the Asylum Clinic at Cambridge Health Alliance, renamed the Global Health and Human Rights Clinic to better illustrate its broad mission of providing information about immigration and human rights.

As an attending psychiatrist, I routinely perform psychiatric evaluations of asylum seekers, teach trainees to perform these evaluations, and testify in immigration court when necessary. In this role, I have met individuals from around the globe who are fleeing violence and who hope to find a better life in the US. 

Each person’s story is unique, but almost all include a tremendous amount of pain and suffering. One gentleman I interviewed from Central Africa, for example, was abducted while he was walking to work because of his political activities. He was taken to an unmarked prison and thrown into a room filled with decapitated bodies. As he stood next to another man in the cell, guards shoved a gun into the other man’s mouth and shot him in the head. The guards then forced the same gun into his mouth and told him to sign a confession stating that he was plotting to kill the president. He was innocent, so he refused, figuring he would be killed whether or not he signed. Instead of shooting him, his captors brutally beat him. Over the next several days, he was repeatedly told to sign the confession, threatened with death, and beaten. Against odds, after five days, he was released, only to have government personnel break into his house several nights later. He was again beaten, then restrained as government personnel raped his wife. Soon after, he fled his country.

I also met a college-educated woman from Eastern Europe, who was subjected to name-calling, severely beaten, and raped because she was an ethnic minority in her home country. She immediately fled her country after a weeklong hospitalization, which was required due to the brutality of the assault.

I have evaluated individuals, including both Christians and Muslims, fleeing religious persecution and have met others fleeing gang violence in Central America. One mother fled with her two surviving daughters, after another daughter was eviscerated for not agreeing to become a gang member’s sex slave. Yet another woman saw her father beheaded and dismembered because he refused to allow his children to join a gang.  

I have highlighted a few of these stories to illustrate that, for many, the debate over allowing immigrants into the US is not merely an abstract, philosophical discussion but is a matter of life and death.

Inflated Fears: More crime, fewer jobs

Arguments proffered to restrict or prohibit immigration include fear that immigrants will commit crimes in the US—not just general crimes, but specifically terrorism. However, evidence shows that immigrants are far less likely than others to commit crimes of any kind. The reasons for low rates of crime committed by immigrants are likely multifactorial. Refugees, for example, are extensively vetted for past criminal behaviors and ties to violent organizations, first by the United Nations (UN), which performs multiple interviews to fully understand who the person is and with whom they have associated. The UN even obtains an iris scan to establish identity.

After the UN vetting process, the US State Department’s resettlement program begins its own extensive evaluation process, which includes interviews with the Department of State funded Resettlement Support Center personnel specially trained to detect gaps and inconsistencies in refugees’ stories. The process for asylum seekers trying to obtain legal status is different than that for refugees, yet is still as rigorous. Immigration officers and judges carefully evaluate each person’s background and those deemed to be a threat to the US are not granted asylum.

Given this scrutiny prior to obtaining legal status, it is not surprising that immigrants and refugees very rarely commit terrorist acts.

Including those murdered in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the chance of an American perishing in a terrorist attack on US soil that was committed by a foreigner (between 1975 and the end of 2015) is 1 in 3.6 million per year . . . For instance, the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year while the chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion per year.

With the overall murder rate in the US. at 4.5 per 100,000, or roughly 1 in 22,000, it is clear that immigrants are dramatically less likely to commit murder. As for crime in general, “for every ethnic group . . . incarceration rates among young men are lowest for immigrants . . . (and this is true) especially for the Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans who make up the bulk of the undocumented population.”  Thus, refugees and immigrants are far less likely than the natural born population to pose a threat, and the argument that immigration should be restricted due to the potential for criminal acts is unfounded. 

Another concern raised about immigrants is that they will take jobs away from Americans or cause wages to drop. Despite these arguments, there are no data to suggest that immigrants have a negative impact on either the employment status of native born Americans or wages.

Par for the Immigration Course

Data show that immigrants are not likely to commit crimes or negatively impact the US job market or wages, yet anti-immigrant sentiment was a strong factor in the 2016 election, and continues to drive policy. What is driving the anti-immigrant sentiments of a significant portion of the US electorate?  It’s possible that misunderstanding, xenophobia, or simple prejudices are factors. Many of those seeking to immigrate to the US are dark skinned, non-English speakers, from Muslim majority countries or who have religious beliefs that don’t fit within the predominantly Judeo-Christian culture in the US. Historically speaking, when large groups of immigrants entered the US there was often an anti-immigrant backlash, stemming from misunderstanding, fear, and prejudice. Though the US has made strides in improving race relations, even amongst natural born citizens, recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and other cities are examples of ongoing tensions and misunderstanding across races. Some groups, such as Stop Islamization of America, are leveraging this anxiety to amplify fear of Muslims with claims that, among other things, Muslim immigrants want to impose Sharia law in the US. In addition to the already mentioned reasons, as a psychiatrist, I believe there may be a more basic psychological phenomenon behind the opposition to immigration: It is easier to fear threats outside of our control than it is to look within. Thus, despite the political rhetoric to the contrary, immigrants and refugees are not generally the cause of crime or lack of employment opportunity.

Beyond the Practical

Assuming that the vetting that already occurs remains in place, there are strong arguments in support of pro-immigration policies.  From a utilitarian perspective, statistics indicate Americans allowing as many foreign-born individuals as possible would lower the overall rates of crime in the United States. Doing so would promote the greatest safety and therefore, presumably, increase the overall happiness, as measured by a lower national crime rate, for example, for everyone in the US. Despite the fears of some, there is some intrinsic value in exposure to a variety of cultures, given the possibility of expanding and broadening their awareness. 

Beyond practical reasons for supporting immigration, from a deontological perspective, a strong argument can be made for admitting immigrants based on the United States’ historical duties and obligations to citizens of the world. In response to the atrocities of World War II, the US helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 and was one of its earliest signatories. The UDHR states that regardless of country of origin, race, religion, or any other aspect of their existence, all people are entitled to fundamental human rights:  “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.” Additionally, the UDHR states that, “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own,” and  “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

The language in the UDHR is clear regarding rights of immigrants and asylum seekers. Given the insecurities and risk of death that individuals face in their countries of origin, honoring the commitments embraced when the US ratified the UDHR necessitates opening American borders to immigrants. In addition to a moral obligation to assist those in need, reneging on past commitments and stated goals will harm the US, undermining our credibility and commitment to past obligations and treaties.

The US also has a moral obligation to refugees fleeing horrific circumstances created, in part, by US policies and actions. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq, some would argue, destabilized the area and the vacuum of power allowed for the formation of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq later morphed into ISIS. (For more information on how this developed, see this piece.)  Although individuals began fleeing Syria when the civil war started, the rise of ISIS served to further the Syrian refugee crisis. Turning away Syrian refugees would be shirking our moral duty to help ameliorate a crisis that we, at least in part, helped create.

Back to Foundations

Arguments that suggest legally admitted immigrants to the US pose a threat are demonstrably false. There is a historical precedent in the United States of xenophobic and biased responses toward certain immigrant groups, especially during times of war, and the current policies and anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies are an extension of those now universally condemned approaches. Overwhelmingly, evidence shows that those refugees immigrating legally to the US are seeking a safer life for themselves. Not allowing them entry into the US or deporting them back to their countries of origin would be tantamount to handing them a death sentence. In my opinion, this is contrary to the ideals of our country. Almost every American family has immigrant roots; not allowing refugees into the US is hypocritical and contrary to the very foundations of our country.

J. Wesley Boyd, MD, PhD, is on faculty at the Center for Bioethics. He can be reached at jwboyd (at)

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