Last week, in the name of national security, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning Syrian refugees from the U.S. indefinitely and refugees from other countries for 120 days.
The decision has stoked widespread outrage, but two viral Facebook memes suggest people in favor of the ban are going beyond the unsubstantiated threat of terrorists flooding the country as refugees to justify it. Instead, they share photos of struggling Americans to pose an emotional question: If people in the U.S. are suffering, why are we helping refugees?
There are actually simple answers to that question rooted in history, morality and national security. The memes, though, steamroll through them by tapping into the economic anxiety and xenophobia that were hallmarks of Trump’s campaign.
In one post, an uncredited photo shows several people sleeping in a public space, each of them covered with blankets.
The text appears to describe how many people experienced homelessness in 2015 in the Washington, D.C., region, falsely stating that half were veterans. (The number, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, was 580, or 5%.) It concludes: “When we take care of our own then we’ll see about the world.” The post was shared more than 218,000 times by Thursday evening.
Another meme, shared by an anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant Facebook page called Stop All Invaders, presents a sad elderly woman captioned as if she’s wondering why Syrian refugees receive government assistance but she can’t get a cost of living increase for Social Security. It had been shared 95,000 time by Thursday evening.
While it’s true that the Social Security Administration did not approve a significant increase for 2017, it is false that refugees receive lifetime financial aid once they move to the U.S.
Like most political memes, these crude messages oversimplify the problem.
The United States has a long history of providing sanctuary for the persecuted that remains an important part of its legacy, Hans Van de Weerd, vice president of U.S. programs for the International Rescue Committee, said in an email.
“This tradition reflects a core component of this countrys identity as a nation committed to freedom and respect for human dignity,” Van de Weerd said.
World War II tragically tested that ethos as the United States turned away Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany, many of whom ultimately died in concentration camps.
“This tradition reflects a core component of this countrys identity as a nation committed to freedom and respect for human dignity.”
In the years after the war, the U.S. joined more than 100 other countries to sign the Refugee Convention, which created an international system to protect the lives of refugees fleeing, among other horrors, religious persecution and totalitarian governments.
These aren’t easy facts to fit into a meme, which is why people who share posts in casual opposition to refugee aid may miss that the U.S. has a longstanding obligation to share responsibility for the fate of the world’s most vulnerable people. It has chosen to fulfill its commitment partly by resettling a limited number of refugees here.
Van de Weerd said that asking people to decide between helping a veteran who is homeless and a Syrian refugee, for example, is a false choice. He noted that aiding refugees actually does help the U.S. at home and abroad because it contributes to global stability by reducing pressure on countries hosting the most refugees. It’s also a message to the world that the U.S. welcomes people regardless of their creed, race or religion, which Van de Weerd said “undermines the narratives of terrorist groups that the U.S. is at war with Islam.”
Pitting a homeless veteran against a refugee is problematic in other ways. Veterans have been among the most vocal critics of the ban because it means refugees who risked their lives to assist the U.S. military abroad now cannot count on government promises to find safety in America as a refugee.
A separate Facebook meme took on the false choice of aiding either a veteran or refugee by invoking the astronomical cost of Trump’s proposed border wall as justification for aiding both groups. That meme, while also simplistic, poked a hole in the others’ zero-sum logic and spread more widely than either of the previous images. It had been shared more than 240,000 times by Thursday.
While the first meme implied that we’re not “[taking] care of our own,” the federal government has worked aggressively to decrease homelessness across the country, including among service members. The national rate of homelessness actually fell in 2015, according to a report published last year by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
None of that success changes the reality that housing security and affordability are serious concerns to millions of Americans. But it does reveal the insidious premise of the meme: It uses a falsehood to convince people that veterans are being left behind while undeserving refugees take much-needed resources.
“I dont know how you quantify the value of a human being or somebody youre trying to save.”
The truth is that refugees don’t receive a free ride. They are responsible for paying back the cost of their airfare to reach the U.S., said Eskinder Negash, senior vice president for global engagement of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. They receive social services and a modest stipend when they first arrive and are eligible for federal benefits, but are under pressure to quickly find jobs to repay their debt. They rent apartments and pay local, state and federal taxes.
Negash, who has been working on refugee resettlement in the U.S. for decades, said these immigrants are routinely welcomed by local communities and religious organizations, and often revitalize languishing neighborhoods.
“I dont know how you quantify the value of a human being or somebody youre trying to save,” Negash said, reflecting on the anti-refugee memes. But he also felt the messages overlooked an essential aspect of America’s legacy in the world.
“The history of the U.S. throughout the past [few hundred] years is bringing ordinary people and then allowing them to do extraordinary things,” he said. “This country is a product of immigrants, regardless of nationality, religion or ethnicity, and it’s what makes this country great … If we stop refugees from coming, were stopping our history.”
Even the best memes would struggle to capture these stakes. More commonly, they just give social media users a fleeting but hollow sense of victory, which is probably the best reason for approaching them with caution especially when people’s lives hang in the balance.