For a variety of reasons, some of them intensely personal, I think often about the reception that refugees and exiles receive in areas where they are surrounded by strangers far from home. And while I must admit that I have a great deal of personal compassion on those who, for whatever reason, find themselves uprooted from home in search of a better life somewhere else, I also tend to be a tough-minded person when it comes to such matters as well. After all, there are a great many people who will pretend sob stories to gain compassion while looking to take advantage of vulnerabilities, and there are some with violent and negative intentions who will seek to be viewed with undeserved compassion so as to better accomplish their nefarious purposes. There is, in addition to these concerns, the reality that refugees have had widely different experiences within their host cultures, and it is worth exploring these matters in greater detail because they give us some idea of what qualities exist that make life tougher for some refugees than for others, and can better help us understand our response to others as well as how, if we should ever be in the position of being strangers in a strange land seeking new opportunities for peaceful settlement, that we can do so with the greatest degree of success.
From the beginning of the American experience–and it is the American experience I will be focusing on because it happens to be the one I know best–the issue of refugees and exiles became of vital importance. The early Separatist (Pilgrim) and Puritan settlers of New England were religious exiles who faced considerable persecution for their beliefs and, especially in the case of the Puritans, were also quite capable of persecuting others for their beliefs when in positions of authority. While the Pilgrims survived the harsh early winters because of the compassion they received from neighboring tribes, once the Puritans settled in in large populations, they were less than receptive to other religious minorities, who found safer ground in neighboring Rhode Island, where Baptists and Quakers and Jews (all fellow populations persecuted for their religious beliefs) also found a ready home. Other colonies, like Pennsylvania and Maryland were founded with religious toleration in mind for Quakers and Catholics, respectively, and fairly early in American history a large group of Huguenot refugees were able to settle in the Carolinas. In all of these cases the refugee populations were able to find sanctuary and places where they could live in peace and be generally accepted by the local population. This was aided by the fact that these early refugee populations were all viewed as fellow Europeans, were interested in trade and possessed of a high degree of literacy and ability to work well with others. These tendencies certainly helped the early colonies develop a reputation as a diverse land that was capable of successfully assimilating European settler populations of stark diversity, including German pietist sects (again, in Pennsylvania) and even Sabbatarians who faced long imprisonment for their beliefs in England. This experience no doubt encouraged a high degree of importance in religious freedom even as locally established churches were permitted even into the 19th century.
It is in the 19th century where refugee populations become increasingly problematic. Whether we are looking at the (mostly Catholic) Irishmen, or the political Germans who settled in the middle of the 19th century or more economic refugees like the Chinese and Japanese of the late 19th century along with the people of Central and Southern and Eastern Europe who fled Czarist Russia or overcrowded Italy and Germany, these refugees did not enjoy immediate acceptance within the United States. The large amounts in both relative and absolute terms, the general lack of spit and polish and education among the refugees, and the difference in religious beliefs (more Catholics as well as those of Eastern religion) to the cultural norm meant a longer time before such people were fully accepted as Americans. Again, as was the case before, those who were fellow Europeans and were able to acquire education and demonstrate an interest in obeying the law and seeking education and advancement generally tended to find it within several generations, while those who were more different found their opportunities for advancement more limited.
Such patterns have generally repeated themselves throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Even as immigrants and their representatives have received some political power based on their concentration in certain areas of the country, there has been some serious backlash relating to the degree of alienation between American culture and what the immigrants bring with them. Refugee populations that are small in number and have a high degree of interest in acquiring English proficiency and a high degree of educational attainments find acceptance easier, especially if their refugee status is due to their opposition to Communism and they have shown themselves loyal to American interests. On the contrary, immigrant populations that have sought to change the political system of the United States, have been large in number, and have made heavy demands on the general population of the United States have faced increasing hostility and resentment, which is entirely unsurprising. Would you rather have a refugee a fellow Protestant French Huguenot of high culture and education who you would see as a potential business partner or spouse for one of your children, or someone of an alien language, religion, and culture whose views towards you and your beliefs were hostile and who demanded from you welfare benefits and changes in school curricula as well as one’s law system to allow for their own alien laws and traditions. You wouldn’t have to wait very long to hear my own preference in the matter, and that is entirely as it should be.
After all, refugees are in general a dependent population. To the extent that a refugee does not need very much–just a safe place to land after having come into some political difficulties abroad–and is not very different from you, such a refugee will not be made to feel like one for very long. They will likely be able to make a go out of business, find themselves accepted socially, and become rapidly a part of mainstream culture. Other refugees will present greater challenges but will still be capable of being part of mainstream culture after a few generations, once they have demonstrated a pattern of cultural worthiness and a willingness to work hard at fitting in and showing themselves as law-abiding and loyal residents. Again, those willing to prove their goodwill will likely be able to do so with general success, even if it takes a while. Over the long haul, it is those who cannot and will not blend in or show themselves loyal and law-abiding that will face more serious problems in blending in. But can such things really be blamed on a generally tolerant culture as a whole, or must people take some responsibility for remaining sullen outsiders when they have not put forth the effort of showing themselves friendly?