Sep. 25—Catholic Social Services of Alaska announced recently that within the next several months, 50-100 Afghan refugees will be settling in Alaska. As is common when significant numbers of immigrants arrive from outside the U.S., this news has sparked debate about immigration and refugees in general, as well as these refugees specifically. As Alaskans, we ought to welcome them with open arms.
For a country that was itself founded by immigrants seeking to better their circumstances, the United States' relationship with immigrants has nearly always been fraught with suspicion and misgivings. That's unfortunate, because it's no exaggeration to say that America's prosperity has depended on the work, culture and drive of immigrants since before the colonies declared independence from the British empire.
It was in that Declaration of Independence's preamble that the founding principles of the U.S. were first articulated: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
It was a powerful, sweeping statement in 1776, and it still reverberates today: the idea that all people have equal inherent worth and dignity, and are by extension entitled to the same rights, freedoms and protections. America was not without its original sins — the land on which colonists started their new lives and their new nation was forcibly taken from the Native people who had lived on it for thousands of years (and to whom the rest of us are all relatively recent immigrants), and the principles of the Declaration overlooked the hundreds of thousands of slaves to whom such rights were not extended. But over the course of the past 245 years, we have worked to make this a more perfect union — one in which America's promise is more equally accessible to all of its people. That work continues today, and it continues with the settlement of about 31,000 Afghan refugees — so far — across the country, of which those coming to Alaska are a small slice.
These are not just a random sampling of "huddled masses yearning to breathe free," as Emma Lazarus' poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty reads. At the very least, they are families that have reason to fear the ascendance of the Taliban in Afghanistan because of who they are or what they believe. In many cases, this is because they gave aid to our troops that spent the past 20 years in harm's way in Afghanistan. They worked as translators, as interpreters, as conduits to local communities in the war zone. It was a big risk to take while the war was ongoing, and the danger for them and their families if they remained in Afghanistan was immense. To resettle them in the U.S., where they will have a shot at building peaceful and prosperous lives for themselves, is the least our country can do to repay them for the risks they took and the help they extended to our fighting forces. Fears that they will be improperly or inadequately vetted have been overblown; the refugees are in military custody now, getting their affairs straightened out before they're settled across the country. Those deemed to present any kind of a risk will not be allowed to proceed. Those who are settled in communities will pose no more risk to U.S. security than your next-door neighbor.
As America has grown and matured, there has been a chorus all along the way that the latest batch of immigrants and refugees don't deserve the same chance our forefathers got when they first arrived here. This is exclusionary bunk, born of fear and laziness. Far from taking jobs that would otherwise go to American citizens, the newest arrivals have consistently done jobs that others in the country wouldn't, whether because of low wages, hard labor or dangerous conditions. Far from being a burden on our welfare rolls, immigrants and refugees contribute tremendously, understanding that the only way to get ahead in a country where everyone else has a head start is to work hard and keep working to improve the lot of their future generations. And in doing so, they push the rest of us who have been here longer, keeping us from getting complacent and resting on our laurels.
Alaska has been no different: Its Native people have been working hard here for thousands of years, not only surviving but preserving and enriching their culture and traditions. Its first American settlers were often first-generation immigrants to the country, many from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, looking for a chance to strike it rich by the sweat of their own brows. As Alaska's commercial fishing economy developed, it depended on a workforce of Filipinos, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to help process fish and run the canneries — a tradition that continues even today. The broad coalition of communities that make up Anchorage are reflected in its schools; according to Niche.com, East, Bartlett and West High are the three most diverse high schools in the entirety of the U.S.
Into that mix, several dozen Afghan refugees will be added over the next half-year. As they build their lives in a new home far from the one they've left behind, they will help us live up to the values espoused in the Declaration of Independence — values that, by Alaska's unique nature, live-and-let-live mindset and wide-open spirit, hold more promise here than anywhere else in the U.S. We're lucky to have these new arrivals, and we hope the welcome they get makes them feel lucky to be here, too.