The Silence Regarding the Persecution of Christians

In case you haven't noticed, thousands -- perhaps millions -- of Christians living in Muslim nations are being prosecuted, even brutally murdered.  For example, in Nigeria in 2011, the Muslim extremist group Boko Haram killed 510 Christians and destroyed more than 350 churches using guns, gasoline bombs, and even machetes, all the while shouting "Allahu akbar" ("God is great").  On Christmas Day alone they slaughtered 42 Catholics.  Similar attacks have occurred in Iraq (our "ally"), where since 2003 more than 900 Iraqi Christians have died from terrorist attacks in Baghdad alone while half of all Iraqi Christians have fled the country (see here and here).

Details aside, this violent persecution is much the same in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia (home to one million Christian guest workers), Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, Iran, and Indonesia.  According to a Pew Forum study, Christians are being persecuted in 131 of the world's 193 countries (200 million according to the World Evangelical Alliance).  (These data are reported in David Aikman, "The Worldwide Attack on Christians" Commentary, February 2012).  Syria may be the next venue for attacking Christians if the Assad regime falls.  And there is nothing on the horizon that suggests that anti-Christian violence will recede.

With the exception of admitting a handful of Egyptian Copts fleeing prosecution, the official U.S. reaction has been limited to verbal condemnation.  Speaking at a January 15, 2010 conference marking International Religious Freedom Day, Obama offered up some vacuous boilerplate: "[O]ur freedom to practice our faith and follow our consciences is central to our ability to live in harmony."  In fact, the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act requires that the promotion of religious freedom worldwide be a part of U.S. foreign policy, but the Obama administration has yet to take a single step under this Act (see here).

Given America's celebrated history of providing sanctuary to those persecuted for their religious beliefs, this inaction is bewildering.  To be sure, the U.S. need not emulate Israel, which provides automatic refuge to any Jew escaping danger, but surely the subject deserves at least some discussion -- yet none is forthcoming.

This silence has multiple roots, but one in particular lurks powerfully in the background: thanks to our welfare state and automatic racial preferences, millions of these Christian refugees would excessively burden already over-stressed government budgets, so better to let such people languish abroad.  In crass economic terms, the economic and educational befits that would immediately flow to these Nigerians, Pakistanis, Iraqis, Egyptians, and all the rest make them too expensive to import.  Today's galloping "compassion" for the less fortunate at home may now impose a death sentence for Christians abroad.  

Some background.  Until the 1960s, the burden of absorbing religious refugees was hardly cost-free but still light by today's standards.  In the last half of the nineteenth century, for example, millions of Jews escaped Russian anti-Semitic pogroms, and while their arrival did burden government somewhat (e.g., additional policing), costs overwhelmingly fell on the immigrants themselves.  As with their predecessors, Eastern European Jews relied on religious organizations plus self-help groups for everything from small business loans to funeral expenses.  There was nothing that even remotely resembled today's safety net; it was sink or swim.

Moreover, the adjustment costs were widely and correctly viewed as temporary.  Most of these refugees soon found work, began to assimilate (especially by learning English), and within a generation were contributing to the common good. T hose who found the U.S. too daunting returned home.  Of the utmost importance, Jews fleeing pogroms, like the German and Irish refugees before them, were not greeted dockside by activists teaching new arrivals how to exploit government benefits and master the victimhood game.  No new arrival believed that a slice of the economic pie was already waiting for him thanks to bean-counting government bureaucrats promoting "fairness."   

Today, this age-old pattern is far iffier. Some groups -- notably the South Vietnamese, Indians, and Chinese -- assimilate relatively quickly and become economically productive.  In other instances, however, immigrant populations, regardless of motives for immigrating, struggle to adapt and become long-term financial liabilities.  For example, since the early 1990s, refugees from Somalia have been settling in Minneapolis, MN, where they stubbornly lag behind economically and educationally (in 2010 82% lived at or below the poverty line, and two-thirds lacked a high school diploma).  Even more disturbing, several of these Somali newcomers have turned to terrorism.  A similar problem with 2,000 Somali immigrants occurred in Lewiston, ME, where they though brought violence and swelling welfare rolls, educational problems, and myriad health issues.  And while these Somalis may not fully grasp U.S. culture, they have acclimated well enough to request a Department of Justice investigation into possible discrimination in Lewiston.  (For additional statistics on immigration and welfare use, see here).

The issue is not Somalis per se or, for that matter, the success or failure of any other recent immigrant group.  It is axiomatic that, as in the past, some will outperform others.  What has changed, however, is the downside risk.  Nineteenth-century immigrants from Ireland and Italy, for example, only slowly moved up the economic ladder, but -- and here's the key point -- the cost of modest progress was not a public burden.  A struggling Irish family of the 1850s relied on family, friends, private charities, and the Catholic Church, not government-supplied food stamps, subsidized housing, free school meals, Medicaid, government-paid vocational training, Supplemental Social Income (SSI), or preferences in college admission for a "historically under-served" minority.  If an immigrant back then suffered from, say, alcoholism or mental illness, he or she might turn to the a priest, not a government-paid therapist.  (Technically, today's immigrants who are judged likely to become public charges should be denied visas, but in practice this requirement is easily circumvented.  See here.)

Further keep in mind that using religious persecution as the test for admitting immigrants probably undermines eventual economic progress, since immigrants admitted solely according to religious status are unlikely to possess the typical émigré virtues of a strong work ethic and ambition.  In the meanwhile, no helping hand is necessarily extended to self-selecting, smarter, more ambitious newcomers.

So imagine what might happen if the Obama administration decides, in an act of Christian compassion, to admit 10,000 Christian Nigerians fearing for their lives.  The best possible outcome would be that after some initial adjustment, these Nigerians become economically productive Americans independent of cradle-to-grave government-funded assistance.  But the downside could be a long-term financial disaster: decades of public welfare, millions in federal educational and housing assistance and city budgets overwhelmed with medical and policing costs, with these grateful (though troublesome) refugees all the while adding little to the nation's economy.

The political downside may even be worse.  Welcoming immigrants who do succeed (e.g., the Chinese) tends to yield few enduring political benefits.  Yes, the children of recently arrived Chinese have energized the U.S. computer industry, but try to extract political credit (i.e., votes) for that accomplishment.  But imagine if the Obama administration resettled the 10,000 Nigerian Christians in California.  The upshot might be even more welfare spending, ethnic strife, gang-related crime, and lowered property values while the children of these newcomers receive preferential treatment in admission to Berkeley and UCLA.  (And these calculations do not factor in the possible negative reaction from groups currently disproportionately reliant on government largess.)

It is easy to see why the U.S. once easily extended a helping hand to those persecuted for their religious beliefs.  Back then, even if the welcomed group added little, the downside was modest.  Today, however, thanks to the welfare state, the potential costs can be immense at a time when existing entitlements grow increasingly unaffordable.  Perhaps Christian threatened overseas should pray for an end to the American welfare state.

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