McK has, in a couple of different posts, offered the idea that Syrian Muslims might not be good candidates for immigration to the US. Their religion and culture, the idea is, are too different from ours to allow them to assimilate.
I find this questionable, because our history is full to the brim of stories of different ethnic, national, and religious groups that were initially assumed to be too foreign, and yet somehow found a place for themselves here.
I thought I would look at the experience of the Somalis. They are Muslim Arabs, from the middle-east-ish part of the world. Their country has been basically a failed state for quite a while, although things seem to be stabilizing. And they have been the locus for an active Al-Qaeda related organization, Al Shabaab.
So, if the Somalis can make it here, why can't the Syrians?
What I found is that there are about 85K Somalis here, with some estimates ranging higher. Most came since their civil war broke out in the 90's. Most were born in Somalia. The largest population is in the Twin Cities in MN, but there are also significant populations in a number of other parts of the US.
They are targets for attempts to radicalize them. Sometimes the attempts are successful - a few dozen young Somalis have left the US to fight either with Al Shabaab or, more recently, with ISIS. Most of those, virtually all with one possible exception, were young men.
One young man stabbed nine people in a mall. Fortunately no-one was killed.
Mostly, they seem to work hard to find a place for themselves. Even if they wear funny clothes and hats and seem kind of weird. They seem to like it here. They are finding their way into our social and political institutions.
What do I see? A handful of cohesive communities of hard-working, family oriented people, trying to make a life for themselves in a new country. Small-e entrepreneurs, starting small local businesses and building a stake. A non-trivial but small number of young men who can't find their way and resort to violent or criminal actions.
What do I think? I think the Somalis seem to bring a sense of community, a lively entrepreneurial energy and spirit, and a desire to find a place for themselves here. Some will go back home as things settle down there, many will not.
Some of them will not thrive, and among the young men in particular, some will end up living anti-social and destructive lives. Some will engage in violence, perhaps violence against us.
I recognize the risks associated with letting people from a truly different culture come here. I recognize that assimilation is often difficult, and that it can create discomfort and even hardship both for the immigrant and for the community they are trying to enter. In the case of immigrants from the Islamic middle east, I recognize the constant attempt to enlist recent immigrants into violent and anti-social behavior.
I recognize all of that, and I think it is outweighed by what the immigrants - in this case Somalis - bring. I see their energy, and the enthusiasm that they have for being here. I see the opportunity they offer us to understand people who are not exactly the same as us. I see the role they play in making the US seem like a welcoming and fair-minded nation to the folks they leave behind in Somalia, or wherever.
And I personally think all of that is worth the risks involved.
There is no perfect safety. Even banning immigration from unstable and dangerous parts of the world does not bring perfect safety, because it isolates us from the people who live there, and leaves them to draw their own conclusions about who we are.
One part of our heritage has always been to welcome the stranger, the person in need. Another part, of course, has been to keep those sneaky foreigners out. Both of those approaches to immigration are based on an understanding of who we, as a nation, are, and what we are about. Why we are here, and what we are here for.
They are two different stories that we tell ourselves, about ourselves. They're both true, and neither is complete. We get to pick how the next chapter gets written.