CONFER: Don’t close our country to immigrants

Bob Confer

One of every four people I work with at Confer Plastics are what you might call New Americans. Of them, most are from Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma.

They came to America by either relocation from refugee camps (having been forced from their homeland) or under their own accord (to escape persecution). They were victims of ongoing civil wars, all of which were along social and religious divisions. The horrors they saw or experienced were overwhelming, especially given that much of it occurred at the hands of the very military that was, in theory, supposed to protect them. They suffered through slavery, child labor and human trafficking of women and children alike. They saw their villages burned and family members defiled and murdered.

If they were able to escape such horrors or were driven out they were often placed in refugee camps in India, Thailand and Malaysia. Those camps were surrounded by barbed wire, food was not in abundance and housing was, at best, nothing more than skinny planks or pallets cobbled together.

After spending years in such camps, United Nations and the United States would relocate them. Common destinations were Des Moines, Indianapolis and Buffalo. Erie County became home to 9,000 Burmese refugees.

All of them wanted to leave their frightening, scarring past behind and start life anew. They went from Hell to Heaven. It’s a blessing that they could go from one of the worst nations on the planet to the best.

And, it’s a blessing that we have them here.

My Burmese teammates, currently numbering around three dozen, are exceptional people. Very hard working. Unyieldingly respectful and loving. I consider myself lucky that we can work together — they to better us, we to better their circumstances.

They are living the American Dream with passion, working hard to do as many of us born here are. They’re growing their families, putting roofs over their heads and food in their bellies, planning for college and retirement, making investments, going on vacations and contributing to our economy and communities.

They have freedom.

They value it.

They use it.

They’re great Americans for that.

Their friends and family, facing atrocities back in Myanmar, would do and be the same.

But, we might never know that — at least during the rest of this presidency.

President Trump recently announced an immigration ban on six more countries. Myanmar is among the additions, the latest in a long line of so called “travel bans” that now includes 13 countries.

While visas will still be given to Burmese traveling here for a temporary stay (tourism, business, medical treatment) and Burmese refugees will still be allowed to come here, all other forms of immigration will be suspended, be it through lotteries or visas that could lead to citizenship, including visas for spouses and certain family members.

So, while it’s not a full-out ban because refugees are still given the chance to settle, there are many issues to consider.

One, Trump cut down on refugee resettlements to only 18,000 for 2020. His previous ceiling was 30,000 and this marks the third time he has made a cut. Refugee allowances will be at their lowest since 1980 when the modern refugee program began. Fewer people will be able to escape encampment to find a better life.

Two, by negating immigration and making refugee access the only in, we are delaying or preventing people who could escape the horrors in Myanmar from coming here. We’re basically saying “experience the evil, go to a crummy camp, then we’ll let you in.”

Three, by preventing family members who could leave the destruction in Myanmar from finally being reunited with their family here who were driven out years ago, we only extend the misery and heartbreak that has become the norm in their lives.

Lastly, this plays to the narrative of Trump’s opponents (and, as matter of fact, his own narrative from the campaign trail) that he’s closing off our borders to Muslims. Everything was fine when most of the Burmese immigrants were like most of my Burmese coworkers — Karen Christians. Now that the immigrants are predominantly Rohingya Muslims (who are faced with mass exodus, genocide and ethnic cleansing) the doors are closed. It’s not coincidental.

We as a nation need to be better in all these matters and allow the Burmese and other people in harm’s way to come here as immigrants. In many cases, that’s why the predecessors of a good many of this paper’s readers came here. America is a destination for hope for a reason; we have something pretty special here.

Yes, immigration should have controls and limits — we don’t want a free-for-all, open borders or illegal immigration — but we shouldn’t get to the point that we turn the spigot so much that we’ve basically stopped the flow of good people in serious need from coming into this country to make their lives, and ours, better.

   

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com.

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