A lot of voices have chimed in to defend immigrants and refugees in recent weeks. But one perspective that has been largely lost in the din—and one that carries a lot of weight with policy-makers—is that of military veterans.
A group of local veterans is hoping to change that.
“There’s a commonality between veterans and immigrants,” says Matt Landis, who did several tours in Iraq, post-9/11, with the Army. “Very few people in this country get to see the process of creating freedom. Immigrants, they’re basically creating their own freedom by going through the struggle of coming here.”
Landis was one of several veterans to speak a press conference on February 8 in front of the City-County Building, along with representatives of Pittsburgh’s immigrant communities, including the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh, and Casa San Jose. He sees immigrants as an essential part of the American character, not a threat to it.
“Liberty, as we define it, is the single most important idea man has ever had, I think,” says Landis. “Immigrants are the manifestation of that idea, the flesh-and-blood proof of our national belief in that idea. One of the core concepts that underpins military service is the understanding that this idea is more important than ourselves. It may seem cliche, but the suggestion that one would sacrifice anything for this idea is rarely tested in our general populace. The very thing we are celebrating about our service members is their courage in facing such heightened danger for the sake of defending our hard-earned liberty.
“What we seem to be demonstrating with the recent support for anti-immigration policy is a refusal to share the burden of courage in defense of that idea. To me this is unacceptable, and uncharacteristic of our nation . . . That’s not what I fought for.”
According to Landis, there are very practical reasons for keeping America’s more traditional, welcoming attitude towards immigrants in effect.
“Our immigration policy is more than border control,” says Landis, who is also an organizer with the 2nd Service Platoon of The Mission Continues, which deploys veterans on volunteer missions in their communities. “It’s a message, broadcast to the world, defining how we feel about the people who receive it.”
“Most recently, we have changed that message to one of exclusion, which undermines the relationships we have developed on the ground in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.”
He explained that demonizing everyone from nations like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria as potential terrorists plays into the hands of the actual terrorists they are fleeing.
“We are broadcasting the message that the U.S. doesn’t respect your culture enough to recognize its complexity,” says Landis. “We frequently send the same message to segments of our own population, and the damage is no less. Again, that’s not what I fought for.”
Although Pittsburgh’s refugee and immigrant communities are small, they do have a lot of allies, and potential allies.
“I hope that people will see what we’re doing here in Pittsburgh, and consider it a model of action to be replicated in their own communities,” say Landis. “I hope that . . . people saw these veterans, standing alongside these refugees and immigrants, and understood: we are no snowflakes, our heart cannot be questioned, and we aren’t going to allow the ideas we fought for to be so easily trodden underfoot.”
Even though immigration policy is made at the federal level, there are still things that can be done locally.
“There are already thriving immigrant and refugee populations in our city and county,” notes Landis. “There are frequently community events centered around meeting and interacting with them, learning about them and their cultures, and sharing yours with them. Seek these opportunities out.”