Matt Knutson: It’s important to know the truth about refugees

Published 9:42 am Friday, February 3, 2017

Rochester resident Matt Knutson is the communications and events director for United Way of Olmsted County.

“I’m being reminded yet again of the power that comes with knowledge and an education,” I told my wife after reading about Mary McLeod Bethune, a civil rights activist who was born in the late 1800s. As a young girl, McLeod Bethune accompanied her mother to work as she delivered the cleaned clothes of white people. Upon entering the white children’s nursery, she became fascinated with their toys and books. After her mother removed a book from her daughter’s hands, reminding her she didn’t even know how to read, McLeod Bethune concluded, “Maybe the difference between white folks and colored is just this matter of reading and writing.”

Today, we still see the achievement gap between white people and other races in our schools, translating to other gaps in financial stability and success in the subsequent years. McLeod Bethune recognized something powerful in her youth: Knowledge is essential to our individual and collective success. She worked tirelessly to provide educational opportunities for people of color, particularly girls. The brilliance she instilled in future generations lives on today, and led her to be influential in President Roosevelt’s policies and relationships with the black community.

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I often find myself struggling in the current political climate with the lack of knowledge that permeates society. We see slanted stories come from once reputable news sources, and reports later come out admitting certain falsehoods. We see the rise of “alternative facts” and blatantly misleading statements. You can see how many people no longer know what to believe and where to get the spin-free truth. Education and knowledge are so crucial to a successful society, and it irks me that we have to question every piece of news that comes across our screens.

The doubt and fear of knowledge leads to irrational executive orders being implemented in our country. Anyone with access to the internet could easily look up how stringent our nation’s policies already are on refugee resettlement, but instead, we have people believing unvetted refugees are living amongst us and that more are coming. In June of last year, now-President Trump said in a speech that there was no system to vet refugees. I can see why he’d enact a halt on all refugees if that were indeed truthful, but it simply isn’t. The process typically takes between 18 and 24 months and involves multiple background checks, face-to-face interviews, biometrics checks and verifying information with numerous security databases. I knew this then, and if you didn’t, you know this now. I hope he does, too, as these people are most in need of safety and stability, something their home countries literally will not provide them.

Tied to the refugee conversation is a larger conversation about the role of immigrants. Married to an immigrant, I’m not unbiased. To be fair, I also think it means I understand the immensely complex system at least a little more than the common American. A recent report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded that in most cases, immigrants aren’t stealing American jobs and are actually creating a most prosperous country. To quote from a New York Times story about the study, “The report called immigration ‘integral to the nation’s economic growth’ because immigrants bring new ideas and add to an American labor force that would be shrinking without them, helping ensure continued growth into the future.”

The new ideas and diversity that come from immigrants, which includes refugees, is what will make America great again. If you look at our history, we’re a nation built on the magnificent stories of immigration. People who came to this country risking it all, sometimes with nothing but the shirt on their back, and making a go at it through hard work and determination. If you’re wondering what will make our country great again, you don’t have to look too hard to find the link between immigrants and their success, and our nation’s collective times of prosperity.

I’m not suggesting open borders. I’m not sure of anyone who is, but it is important to know the truth about these groups of people. I think it’s also important to help people like refugees when we can.

As we’re in the first few days of Black History Month, I thought it might be worthwhile to share how the African Union responded to Trump’s ban. “The very country to whom our people were taken as slaves have now decided to ban refugees from some of our countries.” Long ago, our nation decided some of these people were worth stealing from their home country and forcing into slavery for our nation’s benefit. Today, when some of their countries are war-torn and facing unspeakable tragedies, we close off our border from welcoming them during a time of great need.

I hope we can all remember this quote from McLeod Bethune: “Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it might be a diamond in the rough.”