Expert takes aim at myths and misperceptions surrounding the refugee crisis
Posted August 27
Matthew Soerens has worked with refugees for more than a decade without observing much controversy surrounding the people he serves and helps resettle.
But that all changed last fall when he said that a confluence of issues sparked fear and frustration over the refugee crisis in the Middle East — a situation that has led to calls to curtail immigration from some countries affected by terror.
Soerens, who is co-author of the new book "Seeking Refuge" and the U.S. director of church mobilization with World Relief, a Christian humanitarian group, recently told "The Church Boys" podcast that he believes that we're living in "a new era in terms of Americans views of refugees."
"I've been working at World Relief — which is one of nine agencies nationally that resettles refugees … for more than 10 years," he explained, adding that this is the first time he's seen such stark and negative reactions to refugees.
Listen to Soerens explain the refugee crisis here.
In the past, he said that these people were always seen as a separate collective subset when it comes to the overarching immigration debate. Rather than people who came to the U.S. illegally, refugees have enjoyed bipartisan support in their quest to flee "persecution or at least a credible fear of persecution."
"It's part of our national history," Soerens said of welcoming refugees. "That's never been particularly controversial since I've been at World Relief."
Changing tides, though, emerged amid a series of terror attacks that have unfolded abroad and in the U.S. as well as a heated election season replete with attempts to limit refugees from the Middle East over fears of potential terror.
Soerens said that a series of myths have been perpetuated surrounding refugees. Among them: that there's no solid vetting process for those coming into the U.S.
"That's one of the big misconceptions … it's actually a process with a strong record," he said. "There's a very thorough process that everyone has to go through."
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has repeatedly called for stricter regulations for those coming into the U.S., and recently introduced his "extreme vetting" plan that would essentially ask refugees questions about their values to make sure that they line up with the nation's stance on various issues.
"I think the confusion right now is — a lot of people hear, 'Well, we don't have any process or we have no idea who these people are' and that's just not accurate," Soerens said, explaining that his organization receives documentation on refugees from the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department that includes biographical information, health assessments and plenty more.
The process for a refugee to come into the U.S., he said, is quite long as well, taking up to 18 months to complete.
Soerens also pointed out that no terrorists who have taken aim at the U.S. of late have come through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program; instead, they have been U.S. citizens or people who came through other channels.
"Sometimes it's hard to sort through the myths and facts with all the information that's out there," Soerens said.
In commenting on Trump's Muslim ban — a policy that now focuses more on restricting travel from countries that have been impacted by terrorism — Soerens said that it appeared that the initial proposal had some "First Amendment issues."
The relief worker also noted that, over the past decade, there have been more Christians who have come into the U.S. than any other religious tradition — a fact that he felt was important, considering the current debate.
There's another element that Soerens believes is especially important for the faithful to consider: what the Bible says about refugees.
He pointed to references in the Bible about the "foreigner residing in the land" and said that Jesus, too, was a refugee, citing the gospel account of Joseph fleeing to Egypt with his family when Jesus was a child to escape Herod.
"I want to be sure that the way I respond personally to the refugees who arrive in my community outside of Chicago is the way I would want to respond to Jesus himself," Soerens said.
He said that he's hoping his new book "Seeking Refuge" — a text that explores the refugee crisis and works to help readers understand what's really unfolding — will help guide people and churches to take action to help out.
"My experience … is that refugees can actually be a blessing," Soerens said. "Many of them are persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ who have a lot to teach us about what it means to follow Jesus."
Find out more about "Seeking Refuge" here.
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