The recent influx of Syrian refugees into Europe and their proposed acceptance in the United States, in addition to the large Islamic populations already living in parts of Europe and in some Midwestern cities in the U.S., in addition to the large influx of Mexican and Latin American undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. … all of this is a test of American and Western ideals and values.
Some people would say that we will be killing ourselves with our own idealism. That the trouble with holding values like freedom, tolerance, openness, and respect for the religions of others is that eventually other people will take advantage of them and put you out of business.1 But who can live without ideals? Who can endure a life not centered in strong values? Having a declared purpose means putting it at constant risk. This is called the human condition.
I was always taught that the time to stick to my ideals was when it became hard, when they became risky and dangerous—not just when the outside world offered no real challenge and holding onto your ideals was easy and peaceful. If you don’t live by your principles, what do you have? If you won’t die for your principles, or at least suffer inconvenience for them, what are you? My sense says a person without principles, beliefs, values, and a certain web of no-cross-over-it lines2 is either a shameless opportunist or some kind of bipedal animal. But then, I was brought up rigorously by parents who believed in a certain form of civic magic.
In the United States, we are rich. We have so much at our disposal: available money, leisure time, educational opportunities, entertainment possibilities, enticing foods. For most of us the question is not “What will we eat?” but “What would you like to eat?” We are fed more than we can or should consume in our restaurants, and so we take home half the portion to eat later or let rot in our refrigerators.3 Your local grocery store regularly clears the shelves and throws in the dumpster foods just one day past their pull date. This might make sense for delicate perishables like milk and bread—but peanut butter, jams, and pickles? We spill about as much as we consume, whether by habit or through regulation.
Yes, we have poor people in this country whose existence is a state of constant trial. But our poor are wretched only by comparison with the lot of the average American citizen. Our poor people drive cars, own or rent houses, and have televisions and cell phones. Compare that to the status of the poor and dispossessed in Africa, the Middle East, India, or South America. The people in the United States who are truly without homes or possessions or the means to obtain them are generally the survivors of some natural disaster, economic catastrophe, domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse, or some other incident or condition which has caused his or her feet to slip off the rungs of success’s ladder. People are not homeless in America because we have a shortage of houses; they are homeless because we have no housing situations matched to their economic circumstances.
Europe is slightly worse off than the U.S., with a lower gross domestic product, higher unemployment, and reduced standard of living. I happen to believe this is because their socialist ideals and trust in a communal utopia hampers their understanding of basic economics and market principles.4 But still, the average European lives better than the average citizen of any state outside what we call the “developed world.”
My principles do not suggest that we owe these people in the “undeveloped” or “third world” admittance to, succor with, or a free ride on the wealth that the Western democracies have created for our citizens. The Syrian refugees pouring out of the Middle East and into Europe are not a direct consequence of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan but instead are fleeing civil war in their own country, which has spawned a virulent form of Islamic fundamentalism that is more strict and cruel than any deprivation created in Syria by the Assad family and worse than the barbarities Saddam Hussein visited upon his enemies. The Middle East was a backwards place under the Ottomans, failed to prosper in liberation following World War I, failed to diversify and develop with all the oil wealth poured into the region by the West after World War II, and is rapidly sliding into a state of decay powered by dreams of 13th-century religious purity and transcendent glory.
We in the West cannot solve the region’s problems—or those anywhere else in the world—by sending them money, food, arms, or military support. That would be, in the terms of the old piscatorial adage, giving a man a fish. Instead, we need to teach—and they need to learn—the principles of free-market economics, technological innovation and reward, respect for the individual, and personal responsibility that allowed the developed countries of the West—and our emulators in Japan and other parts of eastern Asia—to prosper in the first place. That’s teaching the world to fish.5
But that answer is a long way off. And we are still faced with three million Syrian refugees heading for Europe and the United States, as well as eleven million or so Mexicans and Central Americans walking across the U.S.’s southern border. This tidal wave is crashing now.
My personal principles say that anyone who abandons the place he holds in the world, gives up whatever slice of property or community he might claim, lets go of whatever possessions he cannot carry in his pockets, and stumbles, walks, hitchhikes, or begs a ride to someplace better … that is a person to be respected. He or she is someone who won’t sit still and be clubbed to death by thugs or boiled slowly like the proverbial frog in hot water. This person has made an internal decision—that the current situation leads downward to slavery and death, and that the unknown future on a distant shore can only be better—and then acted on it. Think of the courage this decision takes: to abandon what you know and just walk, perhaps hauling your family with you, maybe only hoping to send some money back and bring them along later. It is the dull people, witless people, lazy people who sit in place and expect either that things will get better or that someone will rescue them. These millions of refugees have attempted to assess their situation accurately and decided to risk everything by taking action.
I salute that kind of forward thinking. These are the people we need in the new world we are making in the West, the developed world of the future, the world that depends on personal initiative and personal responsibility. My principles say we should reward that kind of self-awareness and courage. We should try to make a place for them.6
But it would be wrong just to open the borders and let them move into barrios and burrows, hiding in the cracks, stateless persons without the opportunity to join our society legally and eventually claim citizenship. That would be worse than herding them into camps and closing the gates on them. The stateless person fears the law as the force that will deport him or her back to hell, and that makes her or him the natural prey of criminals. The stateless person works without the protections our society offers in terms of wage and hour laws, occupational and safety protections, and other graces which the average citizen hardly things about, and that makes him or her the natural subject of exploitation. Acquiring for ourselves a new crop of slaves does not accord with the principles of Western democracy.
If we are going to open our borders to these people, we need to do it in an orderly fashion. We need to set up processing centers so that people entering our country as refugees are recognized, identified, and tracked in their progress toward finding work, obtaining a home, getting education, and becoming citizens. We did it before in paper-and-pencil crudity with Ellis Island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We can do it again with processing centers in Texas and Arizona using modern, biometric identification and computerized tracking systems. That will cost some money, and it won’t always be orderly and peaceful for us, or easy for them—but it’s a better, more humane, more enduring approach than the malign neglect we give our Central American refugees now.
Will some refugees come in just so they can partake of our bountiful social support systems: Medicare and other health services, state-funded welfare, food stamps, and free education? Sure. But once they are entered on the Social Security rolls, allowed to work openly, and able to walk in the sunshine, they can also contribute to the tax base and help pay for the services they use. This is the only sensible approach to running an open and generous society: everybody plays; everybody pays.
Will some of the Syrian refugees bring their strict Islamic religion with them and despise aspects of our Western culture? Of course. But we have to trust that they will eventually see the benefits of a tolerant, 21st-century, democratic republic over a closed, 13th-century, sectarian caliphate. Just in the same way we must trust that Central American refugees will shed their 19th-century, agrarian-village lifestyle and become modern, technically oriented citizens. Will some of them fail and try to make America over into the sort of dirt-floored hovel they came from? Sure, but they will be the minority, and their children will leave them behind.
We must have faith in the strength of this Western, market-driven, technologically inspired future we are making. We believe we are creating a better life for the people who enter into this vast social and economic experiment. We should be willing to share it with those who come seeking the same new life.
1. Or that’s the fear of Westerners when encountering fundamentalist Muslims and their Shari’ah Islamic law, which would replace the U.S. Constitution and all civil and criminal codes.
2. The No-cross-over-it line was an invention of my grandfather. His property in Pennsylvania lay at the confluence of two streams—Mill Creek and the Allegheny River not far from its source—both of which had been modified years earlier as part of a flood control project. Instead of a gentle slope down to a sylvan brook, the land ended in a sharp bluff twenty feet above a concrete sluiceway. Mill Creek’s concrete walls were slanted at a forty-five degree angle, while the Allegheny’s walls, which made a deep bend along the property, fell in a straight drop. When the grandkids—my cousins, my brother, and me—came along, my grandfather had his gardener dig a shallow cut in the sod three feet back from each wall and designated it the “No-cross-over-it line.” We were told this line could not be crossed under any circumstances. No amount of curiosity, and no lost balls or toys dropped into the water, justified our ever passing over this line. In fact, we were led to believe the line possessed an invisible force field and could not be crossed. Of course, the force was our own belief and our respect for our grandfather’s authority. But none of us ever ventured across that line—or fell into the river.
3. My mother used to call our refrigerator “the place to keep leftovers until they’re old enough to throw away.” Today, my wife uses the freezer—since we stopped buying half-gallons of ice cream for our pleasure—as a place to keep food waste until we have time to take it down to the apartment complex’s newly installed composting bins.
5. See also Conceptual Tools from September 6, 2015.
6. See We Get the Smart Ones from November 28, 2010.