NOTHING is more American than Emmanuel Makender’s discontent. A 35-year-old taxi driver in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Mr Makender has a comfortable four-bedroom house and two cars outside it. He earns $40,000 a year, the average family income in Grand Rapids, which means his pregnant wife need not work. Yet when congratulated on his achievements, he says he hopes “to be successful one day”. Dissatisfaction, hunger and striving are intertwined. “Still living the American dream, we struggle on!” he says, at the end of a two-hour catch-up.
Lexington had met Mr Makender 18 years before, in different circumstances. He was then a destitute war orphan living in a fly-blown refugee camp in northern Kenya. A fugitive from the war in Sudan, which had claimed an estimated 2m lives, including most of Mr Makender’s immediate family, he had fled his village six years earlier, after soldiers attacked it one night. They killed his father, three of his siblings and, he thought, his mother, leaving him, aged around 12, terrified and alone in the dark.
He joined a straggling column of fugitive children, mostly boys, who trekked hundreds of miles east to Ethiopia to escape the war and rebel press gangs. But another war broke out there, so they trekked back across Sudan to Kenya. The arduousness of the journey, which Mr Makender survived by eating wild plants (“Some were so bitter,” he says) and many did not, made them a celebrated disaster story. They were known as the Lost Boys, and, on November 4th 2000, the day your columnist visited Kakuma refugee camp, America offered them sanctuary. Over the next year 3,800 Sudanese children and teenagers were resettled in 18 states. It was one of America’s biggest resettlement projects.
It also illustrates two of the Refugee Admissions Programme’s traditional strengths. Since it was launched in 1980 it has had an average quota of 95,000 refugees a year, more than that of any other rich country. America has also tended to take the most forlorn cases. Some were victims of its foreign-policy blunders, including hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees. Yet this tendency also reflected the values and self-confidence of a country founded by fugitives, which, over the ensuing four centuries, has been relentlessly successful at turning them into productive citizens. Those traditional strengths no longer apply, however. Because refugee policy is one of the few bits of the immigration system President Donald Trump controls, he has ravaged it.
This year’s refugee quota, 45,000, is the lowest in three decades, and is not expected to be met. Mr Trump also excluded a lot of wretched people from it, by temporarily placing additional restrictions on anyone from a secret list of 11 countries, which is said to include South Sudan, as well as Syria and Iraq. A low-cost nativist signal to his supporters, these are the biggest changes Mr Trump has made to America’s immigration regime. They are also counter-productive, as well as cruel, a typical case of nativists mistaking American strengths for weakness.
The argument against refugees, which Republican governors in Texas and Michigan were making even before Mr Trump’s election, is that they are a financial burden and security threat. Both charges are unfounded. For though it is true that refugees represent a bigger upfront cost than other migrants—America spends between $10,000 and $20,000 resettling each one—they repay that in spades. A decade after their arrival, the average income of a refugee family is close to the American average. Mr Makender has paid over $100,000 in taxes. Americans can also relax about their odds of being killed by a refugee. None of the 3m-odd fugitives America has taken since 1980 has been involved in a fatal terrorist attack. That reflects the rigour of America’s vetting, refugees’ hunger for advancement—and America’s ability to feed it.
Not all the Lost Boys have thrived; some hit the bottle and ended up in jail (as might anyone orphaned, shot at and chased by crocodiles). Yet a few have done extremely well: one is a diplomat, another a chess master. Mr Makender, whom Lexington traced through a Lutheran charity that fixed his resettlement, is more representative. A few days after he learned “about something called snow”, he was ensconced in Michigan with a family of white evangelicals (“my American parents”, he calls them) and attending high school. He meanwhile worked evenings in a grocery, a part-time job he has maintained, even as he has found better-paid work, because “the people there are nice to me”.
He has also worked in a factory, making granola bars, and completed two years of a three-year nursing degree. He did not finish it because he had such little luck finding an internship he began to suspect that America, though short of nurses, was not ready to hire an African man as one. “When you keep getting called back for job interviews and not getting the job, you suspect there is something else going on,” he shrugs. But he kept on working, ten hours a day, often seven days a week.
After a trip to South Sudan, where he was joyfully reunited with his mother, he started sending most of his wages to her and to pay for the education of three nephews, in Kenya and Uganda. That illustrates another virtuous potential of refugees. They tend to be generous to those they leave behind and better at targeting their assistance than aid agencies. That is good for their new country as well as their old one, because thereby they create networks for future commerce and exercising of soft power. The businesses Somali-Americans have started in Mogadishu may head off more anti-American rage than any counter-terrorism measure.
There is, of course, another argument for barring refugees. Some Americans simply don’t want more foreigners in their midst, and it is their right to hold that view. Yet the politicians who dignify it with specious arguments are making fools of themselves and harming America. Refugees make the country stronger, as well as better. They always have.