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Opinion: Utahns should welcome refugees with open arms

When it comes to immigrants and refugees, will we choose to be a nation of walls, drawbridges or bridges?

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Afghan refugees line up for food at a U.S. military base.

Afghan refugees line up for food in a dining hall at Fort Bliss’ Doña Ana Village, in New Mexico, where they are being housed, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. The Biden administration provided the first public look inside the U.S. military base where Afghans airlifted out of Afghanistan are screened, amid questions about how the government is caring for the refugees and vetting them.

David Goldman, Associated Press

Recent hospital visits show how the world already has found a home in Utah. Foreign-born physicians, scientists and researchers perform critical services for the good of our community during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

One of us writes as a 94-year-old patient, whose cancer has returned — a stubborn tumor that requires a remarkable medical team who deliberate, bedside, with many talents. The other one writes as a son whose father, a downwinder who grew up in Milford, Utah, passed away last May from cancer. He received excellent care by a diverse team of specialists, several with international backgrounds.  

These medical professionals and other staff at the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the University of Utah Health System reflect worldwide diversity. Doctors and nurses and night crews originally from distant cities across continents — Asia, Africa, Central and South America — now wear stethoscopes and hold charts while comforting concerned families and keeping the hospital functioning throughout our ongoing public health crisis. 

Today’s kaleidoscope of Utah residents and their stories should be valued and celebrated. Immigrants and refugees make us stronger, as a state and as a country. The includes those who wear scrubs — and also those who find new lives below the Wasatch Front or near our red rock deserts as auto mechanics, fast-food workers, truck drivers, teachers, entrepreneurs and business owners.

One 2019 study by The New American Economy Research Fund revealed that immigrants and immigrants’ children founded 45% of U.S. Fortune 500 companies, employing a total of 13.5 million people. Apple, Costco, Intuit and Broadcom are on this list.

With the painful exit of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, a new test awaits us. How welcome will Afghans be in our Beehive State?

Gov. Spencer Cox, thankfully, has written to President Joe Biden, encouraging the administration to send vetted Afghan families here. One Afghan refugee evacuated from Kabul, an air traffic controller, has already arrived. More will follow in the coming months as the State Department has designated Salt Lake as a resettlement location option. Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall have likewise made clear that welcoming refugees will be a priority. This is local Utah leadership on an international matter when it counts most, and it emphasizes the power of a democracy. 

An Afghan family who made it out of the war-ravaged country sent this hopeful note filled with exclamation points: “Hi sir, My family arrived to Abu Dhabi, UAE! Thank you very much!!!” Another Afghan, still in Kabul and hoping to get a visa approved for him and his family, had a starker message: “Not only Kabul, but all Afghanistan is just a graveyard. No one is sure for life and work. … Families don’t have food stuff and money. … We can’t and not able to work in offices.” A third family managed only a partial reunion after a father was separated from the rest of them at Kabul’s airport while trying to find a bathroom, leaving a niece, her husband, and daughter still stranded in Afghanistan. 

The divisive politics within our country regarding immigration — do we choose to be a nation of walls, drawbridges or bridges? — can either be exacerbated or de-escalated. That will depend on us, not just our elected representatives. Only two members of our federal congressional delegation visited Afghanistan during America’s longest war in order to gain firsthand insights from troops and Afghans — Mitt Romney and John Curtis. We are grateful that Romney, Curtis, Cox, Wilson, and Mendenhall have spoken positively about refugees.

Will more Utah politicians, particularly within the splintered GOP, have the courage to do the same? Many Utahns, after all, understand what bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and violence can mean for families. The Latter-day Saint faith’s 19th-century trek by handcart and wagon from America’s east and midwest through Emigration Canyon was a long and dangerous one. 

National polls show support for the relocation of Afghan refugees to the U.S., particularly those who worked closest with our military and diplomats. A late August 2021 CBS/YouGov survey found 81% in favor of welcoming them to American cities and towns. Salt Lake County is already home to a dynamic and chromatic collection of families. Our state, as a whole, is now fully one-quarter minority according to the 2020 census.  

As more Afghan families land at our new international airport and begin to find their place in our fast-growing Beehive State, one final story is worth sharing. When astronaut Neil Armstrong passed away in August 2012, a young Afghan medical doctor wrote to one of us from the easternmost edge of Afghanistan in a region once frequented by Osama bin Laden.

His message was a tribute to an American hero, an American dreamer from Wapakoneta, Ohio, who, as a kid, always looked up — and then eventually made it all the way to the moon. The young Afghan wrote: “So sad about the death of nail(sic) armstrong he was the real pioneer who had shown his heroism & persuade human to seek & try more and has made clear that nothing is impassable.” 

Nothing is impassable …  

Immigrants and refugees can remind the rest of us — if we let them — just how much possibility, opportunity and optimism remains in America. Those who have lost the most are often the ones who work hardest and whose dreams remain biggest in a big country. 

Let’s welcome Afghan families as our newest Utah neighbors and not do the easier thing, which is to look away. Now is the time for accepting and embracing. President Ronald Reagan said: “Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.”

And President John F. Kennedy said: “Immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.” 

President Kennedy’s and President Reagan’s compassionate words should still guide us. 

John Zaccheo, a 94-year old Rotarian, is a former pizza and Italian restaurant owner and business executive who has called Utah home for almost five decades. Kael Weston served seven consecutive years in Iraq and Afghanistan with the U.S. State Department. he teaches at Marine Corps University, is an author and ran for congress from Utah’s 2nd District in 2020 as a Democrat.