Statement by CIR Executive Committee: Refugees Are Patients, Not Scapegoats

Both around the world and here at home, the American values that inspire our hearts are freedom, justice, tolerance, opportunity, and the promise of a New World — that if one worked hard, played by the rules, and cherished our common ideals, anyone could make a fresh start here. Throughout our history, this American promise has particularly been the hopeful dream for those escaping a nightmare of violence, terror, and oppression in their native lands.

In the wake of recent acts of foreign and domestic terrorism and other threats of violence, many Americans are justifiably unsettled, afraid, and looking for reassurance. But far too many of our elected leaders have decided the remedy is to score political points by fear-mongering and tough talk focused on refugees. Those refugees include families, women, children, and the disabled, who are fleeing the violence, terrorism, and oppression perpetrated by our common enemies in Iraq and Syria. An embarrassing number of governors, including in a majority of states where resident physicians represented by CIR live and work, have issued defiant statements or executive orders over the future resettlement of refugees within their respective states.

To be clear, these are purely political statements, lacking any clear authority or enforceability as a practical matter of law. They also have no positive effect on our safety and security whatsoever. The evidence is clear. Because of the already lengthy period of time (an estimated 12 to 24 months) and extensive screening process that those applying for refugee status must undergo, this immigration pathway is far less susceptible to fraud or manipulation than others. There is simply no evidence that this population is more likely to be violent than those who immigrate through other means, or natural born citizens who have proven capable of acts of devastating domestic terrorism. If terrorism is a disease that can be treated through prevention, the evidence does not exist that irresponsible tough talk or stringent measures against refugees would have any medicinal effect.

But these statements are far worse than placebos. Because they have done nothing to calm our fears, they have driven up the demand for even worse policies that will not only fail to make us any more safe, they will also punish those who have already endured so much. Members of the House of Representatives have openly discussed shuttering the humanitarian work done by the refugee program in its entirety, and a majority voted for what amounts to a moratorium on Syrian refugees. States like New Jersey have begun to investigate whether they have the ability to withhold state-funded social services against a specific qualifying population in a blatantly discriminatory and illegal way.

These policies are not just inhumane. They threaten to undermine any possibility of peaceful integration for a population under duress. Indeed, as physicians, we see clearly that their physical or emotional suffering has been so great that it has driven them out of their homes to become refugees in the first place. The armed conflicts in Iraq and Syria have created unhealthy and unhygienic conditions, including lack of access to clean water, food, and medical care, to accompany the traumatic threat of violence, bombing, and destruction. Decades of experience and studies by physicians treating refugees from war-torn regions have made clear what matters most: for communities to ensure that refugees are able to integrate within their new societies and receive the temporary support they need to live in dignity and security while adjusting to their new homes. This fear-mongering political rhetoric is designed specifically to disrupt the possibility of successful integration.

Finally, these rhetorical posturings and disastrous policy proposals fan the flames of rising Islamophobia and discrimination that we must both thoroughly reject as antithetical to the founding spirit of our nation and overcome within our political discourse.

As physicians, we see things differently. We see refugees as patients, community members and sometimes colleagues, not abstract potential threats. Chronic conditions, disease, and accidental injury occur regardless of a patient’s point of origin. No matter where they came from, they are human beings who will need access to care. Moreover, we believe there is richness in our diversity. That has been proven through our own experience as the physician workforce of the future. Our union includes physicians who were born and raised in the United States. It includes first-generation Americans whose families have already made tremendous contributions to our country. It includes international physicians, some of whom are here only temporarily and others for the rest of their lives. It even includes physicians whose families sought asylum or refuge from troubled regions of the world. All of them are in this country now, giving their all each and every day to care for the sick, repair the injured, help those Americans at their most vulnerable moments, and spend their spare moments being advocates for their patients and a more just, high-quality healthcare system.

The time has come for destructive rhetoric and policies to be replaced with a rededication to the ideals that make our nation the symbol of freedom and hope for a better tomorrow. The physicians of CIR welcome the opportunity to provide care for these new immigrants who have sacrificed and left behind so much for the same things that each of us wants for our own families — security, health, freedom from fear, tolerance for our religions or backgrounds, and opportunity for all.