clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Welcoming Afghan refugees to a city built on sheltering people from the storm

Chicago, perhaps more than any other big American city, can make this work. We’ve been through this before, time and again.

Afghan refugees arrive at Dulles International Airport last week in Dulles, Virginia.
Afghan refugees arrive at Dulles International Airport last week in Dulles, Virginia.
Getty

Some 500 new refugees from Afghanistan are expected to be resettled in Chicago, and we welcome them. Our nation owes them this chance at a new and safe life and, if history is the best judge, they will only make our city stronger.

It won’t be easy. It never is. There will be practical challenges, such as finding adequate housing, employment and health care. There will be cultural clashes with respect to how to dress, how to worship and how to raise children. There will be grieving for what’s been lost and a wariness toward all that’s new and strange.

Yet Chicago, as much and perhaps more than any other big American city, can make this work. We’ve been through this before, time and again. We are famously a city of immigrants, and many of those immigrants, like the Afghans headed our way now, have been refugees fleeing war and reprisals and sometimes certain death.

We think about that every time we get a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich on Argyle Street, in the heart of one of Chicago’s most vibrant immigrant communities.

Weathering the backlash

Americans were at first reluctant to welcome refugees from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975, as the Los Angeles Times reminded us in a recent editorial, but President Gerald Ford shamed Congress into meeting its obligation to these allies of the American cause in that ill-conceived war. Congress passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975, leading to the prompt resettlement of 130,000 Vietnamese refugees.

There is almost always a backlash when the United States opens its doors to new refugees, but the great majority of Americans this time around appear to appreciate our nation’s moral obligation. Polls show that more than 80% of Americans support the U.S. taking in Afghan refugees, understanding that our nation cannot abandon those who risked their lives for us as translators, intelligence sources and drivers.

There are the usual fear-mongering outliers, of course, such as the most recent former president. Where we see refugees, they see dangerous foreigners, even “terrorists.” They claim inaccurately that nobody is being vetted.

But most Americans get it. They understand, in the words of the military motto, that we should “leave no man behind.”

Congress can ease the way

Tens of thousands of Afghan refugees are to be resettled in the United States, after being processed at military bases around the country, including Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. Most of them will be holders of Special Immigrant Visas, which go to refugees who were wartime allies of the United States.

This will make them eligible for a host of public benefits and resettlement services such as Medicaid, SNAP benefits, help in finding work and English language classes.

A smaller group of Afghan refugees, however, will be classified only as “humanitarian parolees,” typically because they worked for the U.S. military in Afghanistan for less than the two years necessary to qualify for a Special Immigrant Visa. They are not eligible for the same level of public assistance, and local resettlement agencies, such as RefugeeOne in Chicago, may not receive federal funding for the services they provide them.

“We will have to rely on the generosity of our community to help these Afghans recover from their trauma, apply for asylum and begin to rebuild their lives in the U.S.,” Jims Porter, communications and advocacy manager for RefugeeOne, told us.

We support a call for Congress to pass legislation that gives refugees of all status, including humanitarian parolees, access to affordable housing, jobs and federal safety net programs such as SNAP and Medicaid. A coalition of more than 25 organizations in Illinois that serve refugees, including RefugeeOne, is expected to push for this, among other priorities, at a news conference this Monday morning.

Growing numbers of refugees

More refugees from all over the world, not just Afghanistan, have begun to arrive in the United States in recent months, as a result of President Joe Biden’s decision in May to lift the annual U.S. cap on refugees to 62,500, a quadrupling of the Trump administration’s 15,000 cap. Inevitably now, we’ll see a growing backlash by Americans who fear the newcomers do not share our nation’s values and will not sufficiently assimilate.

Those are not unwarranted concerns. We don’t take lightly those Western and American values, such as democracy, free speech, religious freedom and the full rights of women, that are not readily embraced in much of the world.

But we are at our best as Americans, living up to our nation’s best ideals, when our first impulse is to make a place for those seeking shelter from the storm.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.