diversity

Harrisonburg's community must welcome any incoming Afghan residents.

The rise of the Taliban after the anticipated and subsequent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan has been at the top of headlines for weeks now. President Joe Biden’s decision has sparked controversy in an already tense political climate, but whether he's responsible for the fall of the Afghan government or was simply the victim of bad timing isn't the question we should be asking.

Instead of playing the blame game, we should move forward and deal with the consequences of Afghanistan’s instability, namely, the influx of refugees. The Harrisonburg community should prepare to welcome these people into the city and do everything possible to provide them with needed support. 

According to The Wall Street Journal, of the roughly 65,000 refugees who have sought foreign protection from the new Afghan regime, about 37% have made it onto American soil. If the past is any indicator, these refugees can expect to wait years for permanent resettlement, as it's up to states whether they'll be accepted. Virginia is one of 20 states that's accepting refugee resettlement, but where they might be resettled within the state is unknown. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 17.2% of Harrisonburg residents are foreign born, and due to the crisis in Afghanistan and the new wave of immigration from Latin America, this number could reasonably be expected to increase. The Church World Services, an organization dedicated to the seamless resettlement of refugees, has stated that there's also a backlog of immigrants seeking resettlement from the pandemic. 

But if helping refugees resettle doesn’t appeal to someone on altruistic grounds, they might consider the benefits it can bring to the community. Research by the International Monetary Fund found that “immigration significantly increases GDP per capita in advanced economies.” With an inflow of new people comes new innovations. 

According to the Mercatus Center, a George Mason University think-tank, immigrants make up just 17% of the U.S. population but account for a third of patents. The same research suggested that immigrants are more likely to start a business, with foreign-born people owning half of the new companies valued at more than $1 billion. Immigrants also represent an influx of workers when the U.S. population is in decline, and despite what some may believe, the National Academy of Sciences found that immigrants are significantly less likely to engage in criminal activity. 

Thankfully, Harrisonburg does have support systems for those new to the U.S. The Welcoming Harrisonburg Council (WHC), as described by its chairwoman Nelly Moreno in an email, is “a community[-led] initiative that seeks to build connection through advocacy, communication, and collaboration.” They provide vital information for new residents and coordinate events ranging from potlucks to political rallies. They also organize workshops for those interested in better understanding civic engagement and immigration. 

In addition to WHC, Moreno serves as the executive director of Skyline Literacy, which specializes in teaching English, preparing immigrants for the citizenship test and offering GED prep and computer literacy classes. Other major resources for immigrants in Harrisonburg include the Church World Services and New Bridges, which offers legal- and health-service navigation. 

JMU has a variety of organizations dedicated to public service and cultural communication. Bridges International welcomes international students through group outings and meetings dedicated to multicultural understanding, and JMU’s Center for Multicultural Student Services (CMSS) advocates for the importance of diversity, educating students on intercultural respect and providing important resources for international students. 

Joining a club like Bridges International or attending an educational event hosted by CMSS is one of the many ways to make Harrisonburg a more welcoming community toward refugees and other immigrants. Moreno offered several more ideas, stating that “students of Harrisonburg can welcome foreign nationals by supporting local non-profits … participate in events where [you] embrace diversity ... calling state senators and representatives, telling [them] that immigrants and refugees are valued contributors to our community.” 

People should welcome those who need support and make Harrisonburg as much of a home for others as it’s been for us. Not only will it benefit the economy and encourage diversity, but it’s also the right thing to do. 

Mia Hazeldine-Ross is a senior international affairs major. Contact Mia at hazeldmg@dukes.jmu.edu.