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Fear, Rhetoric Cloud Reality of Refugees, Immigration, Panel Says

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A panel of activists says the rhetoric of fear about immigrants is far from the reality of refugees.

By SHELLY STECK REALE, Correspondent, TB Reporter

TAMPA BAY – The fears driving bans on immigration may be understandable, but it – and the restrictions themselves – are creating widespread distrust and anxiety at home and abroad, a panel of community activists said.

“Right now I think there’s a lot a fear out there,” Michael Alvarez, former marine and representative, said. “It’s very popular – when economic recovery isn’t at the pace many would have liked – to blame it on ‘the other,’ whether that’s Islam here or abroad; whether it’s trade agreements, trade partnerships, or immigrants.”

Alvarez was speaking Tuesday (Feb. 21) during a panel discussion on immigration at the Children’s Board in Tampa. Topics included the impact of immigration bans issued by President Donald Trump and the rhetoric surrounding those restrictions.

That rhetoric, which plays to fear, provokes images of illegal and poorly scrutinized immigrants pouring across U.S. borders bringing with them crime and terrorism. But the truth is far different, said panelist Ryan Corbin, an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who worked extensively with Afghani interpreters during his deployment.

“It’s a very long and a very cumbersome process,” Corbin said.

He used the example of “Wally,” an interpreter for U.S. and Allied Forces in Afghanistan. “Wally” applied for his immigrant visa in 2009. Since then, he has been forced to move to Kabul because he and his family were threatened as a result of his work with American forces. Eight years later, he’s still working his way through the immigration process before being allowed to come to the U.S.

“People who have served this country, I think we definitely owe a debt to them,” Alvarez said. “This certainly applies to, first and foremost, the veterans; but it also applies to those people [Iraqi and Afghan translators] who put their lives on the line, and the lives of their families. Because you’re definitely a known quantity if you’re out there assisting Americans.”

Even if the process is streamlined for applicants like “Wally,” Alvarez said he believes the damage is already done. The U.S. has historically resettled those who have assisted us. Now, Alvarez and Corbin said, they fear that trust has been eroded so that soldiers will find it harder to get help and information.

“It could be the difference between finding an IED, a cache, or a valued target,” Alvarez said.

Corbin pointed to the approximately 15,000 troops currently spread out around Iraq and Afghanistan whose success is, in part, dependent on interpreters and translators.

“When they see the door slammed in their face, they don’t see the incentive for continued help if there is going to be a disengagement; and not just a disengagement from our assurances to them, but a disengagement from the world,” Corbin said. “Everybody there watches the BBC, so you can’t say they’re out in the middle of nowhere and aren’t hearing about it. They know very well what’s going on. It’s something they watch as closely as we do.”

Many who want to come to the U.S. do so because they are fleeing a life-threatening situation in their home country, said panelist and local business owner, Xuan “Sing” Hurt. Hurt was brought to the U.S. in 1981 when she was just a toddler. Her family packed what they could carry and fled Vietnam in the middle of the night.

“It’s really important that we speak up,” Hurt said. “No refugee decides to leave their home because they get bored with their county, or they just want a new setting; they are trying to give their families a safe life; they’re just trying to live. And if we don’t understand this, if we don’t help them, I don’t see how our refugee community can thrive.”

It’s not only would-be refugees who are impacted by the bans and rhetoric, the panel said. Immigrants already in the U.S. – whether they’re undocumented or pursuing citizenship or simply working to assimilate into American culture – fear of deportation, persecution, and bigotry has become a constant.

“I have had women who have had their hijab – their headscarf – ripped off; people being told ‘go back where you came from… I’ve been told ‘go back where you came from’ and I was carrying my nine-month-old son”, said panelist Majda Rahmanovic, community outreach and events director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “This is real. And, this is what’s happening because of the hateful rhetoric that we are hearing from the presidency and other elected officials.”

The way to reduce fear on both sides, she said, is for people to get to know one another – to reach out and engage Muslims, for example.

“I think you’ll find that they are quite friendly people,” she said.

Immigration | Refugees | CAIR | VoteVets | Council on American-Islamic Relations | TB Reporter

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Fear, Rhetoric Cloud Reality of Refugees, Immigration, Panel Says
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Fear, Rhetoric Cloud Reality of Refugees, Immigration, Panel Says
A panel of activists says the rhetoric of fear about immigrants is far from the reality of refugees.
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