The International Institute of St. Louis’ Anna Crosslin Processes The National Political Drama Surrounding Immigration

Cover image: Children of Bashegwa Byenga, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, resettled in St. Louis by the International Institute Of St. Louis in 2008. 

From the coasts to our home in the heartland, a layer of tension has settled over immigration and refugee resettlement with the recent ‘anti-Muslim’ travel ban from the current presidential administration. Anna Crosslin, president and CEO of the International Institute in St. Louis and an immigrant herself, is one of the city’s foremost visionaries on the issue. She has been at the organization for almost 40 years, and has seen it all; rendering her aghast would take some real work. But in today’s political climate, where there are contradicting schools of thought about what ‘facts’ actually are, it has happened.

“With regard to the new presidential administration and Congress, for nearly all of the other 38 years that I have served in this position, refugee resettlement was always a bipartisan issue in Congress. Democrats and Republicans supported refugee resettlement—for different reasons, but they supported it. It has only been in the last few months that we have seen this turn that has resulted in the January 27 ‘anti-Muslim’ ban and the sharp cut in refugee resettlement visas from 110,000 to 50,000,” she says.

As recently as December 2015, in a Republican-dominated Congress, Crosslin cites support for additional funds necessary to permit additional visas for Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees, through bills that were passed. The strange, objectionable metamorphosis in attitude by the dominant political party has wearied Crosslin. “That was very startling to me. I’ve spent my life working in this field, but also observing the dynamics of refugee resettlement.”Anna Crosslin 2

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Anna Crosslin, shot by Matt Kile

How have you grown the International Institute into the robust organization it is today?
I would like to think there was some skill involved.

When I arrived in September of 1978, Missouri was the only state in the nation that did not participate in the refugee resettlement program. Under the administration of Christopher Bond, there had been a disagreement between his office and federal authorities about refugee resettlement, and he decided to pull the state out of the program.

When I was hired, my first directive from the board was to get Missouri back into the refugee resettlement program. It happened by pure luck. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had gone on strike that winter, and there was a small local paper publishing whatever it could find. They decided to do a story about the refugee crisis, which I did with a Lutheran pastor who was also working with immigrants. The next day, I got a call from immigration attorney George Newman, who told me he’d read the article and understood that Missouri was not part of the refugee resettlement program. He knew a man who was the state representative overseeing the social services budget process, which they were preparing for the next year.

Newman convinced him to include participation in the refugee program as part of the state’s social services budget. When the governor failed to veto the budget, we re-entered the refugee program again through a back door, shall we say.

How did that change Missouri’s relationship to immigration?
So, in the spring of 1979, Vietnamese boat people were fleeing South Vietnam, floundering at sea in leaky boats. It was similar to the situation we’ve been seeing with Syrians on the Mediterranean Sea. It was also in the news every day. Jimmy Carter, who was president at the time, announced the U.S. would resettle 120,000 Vietnamese in one year, and Missouri was positioned to be able to resettle some of those refugees. So within six months, the whole refugee resettlement picture in St. Louis changed. We got back in the resettlement program in time to have an impact by resettling some Vietnamese refugees.

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Bashegwa Byenga

What are the clear-cut reasons why states should support refugee resettlement and policies that lead immigrants to citizenship?
One is, of course, the humanitarian argument. While we can’t save every refugee—we’re talking about in total 65 million displaced people worldwide—we can still save 75,000 to 100,000 people per year. And to each of those people and their families, saving of their lives has great value.

There’s also the economic impact. This is reflected in communities like St. Louis, where all of the data shows that immigrants and refugees are strong entrepreneurs. They create more jobs than they take. Their economic impact in taxes paid and spending power far surpasses the amount of dollars it takes to be able to settle them. And the cultural vibrancy they bring to the community has value, not only for their own communities, but for attraction and retention of millennials and young people who want to live places with diverse cultures.

The third reason is the strong foreign policy consideration. That is, if American troops must be sent to fight wars in nations that are primarily Muslim in background, then we must have allies of those countries who speak the language, understand the culture and will fight at our sides to help the troops. Wars have been going on for many years in the Middle East, and appears that they will continue to happen at least for the foreseeable future.

And if our message to those nations is, “We expect you to fight for us, but we will not resettle your most destitute citizens,” who in those countries will fight on our side? We need these individuals as allies. If we can’t offer a hand to the people who have suffered so badly because of these wars, then how do we retain their loyalty? It gives ISIS a great talking point.

How do you see all of this playing out in the future? What are the ramifications of these actions that we can’t see yet?
I could make a lot of money if I could manage somehow to foretell the future. But I am in the dark, as many of us are, about that question.

What do I hope will happen is a different kind of a response, and that we’ll find a balanced solution. I hope we begin to share the facts as opposed to hypotheses, and as a result that we begin to de-escalate unrealistic fears.

People develop confidence in their opinions of a situation when they really understand what’s actually happening. But right now, we are receiving information in sound bites from conflicting sources, and people don’t know who to believe.

Much of America lives in relative isolation from people who are different from them, even in large cities. St. Louis, while it’s had substantial growth in its foreign-born population, is only 4.5 percent foreign-born. That’s the lowest percentage for a city of our size. There are an awful lot of people who do not live in diverse communities, so they haven’t had a personal relationship with a neighbor or a parent of one of their school-age children or a colleague at the office who is from another country.

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How do we bridge those boundaries?
Our goal is to provide the storyline that helps people connect the dots regarding immigration.
We do that by implementing strategies to create a more welcoming community, and by offering more opportunities to learn about more immersive experiences. Some that are fun and culturally focused, like the annual Festival of Nations. But we also have programs that are longer than 30-second soundbites, so people can make a more knowledgeable decision about what they’re hearing. I don’t blame the individual, in many cases, for acting out of fear.

We’re looking for ways to be able to, for instance, recruit an army of speakers who go through our speaker’s bureau to tell the story of immigration and to introduce them to new audiences—particularly with people who live in more cultural isolation than others. For instance, low-income students who haven’t had the opportunity to travel internationally, to live in other cultures and to learn how wonderful and enriching a multi-cultural environment can be.

Fear levels are reduced when people learn about each other: the stories of each other’s children, their mutual love of their families, the belief in the value of being able to vote for their own elected official. They see there are common values that live underneath perceived differences.

Photography by Attilio D’Agostino unless otherwise noted

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