How to Talk About Refugees With Conservatives

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So far in this series on how to talk about refugees we’ve covered general principles, talking to children about refugees, and talking about refugees on social media. Today we’re going to tackle how to talk about refugees with conservatives. This is a topic I’ve thought quite a bit about, but the approach I lay out here is by no means the only way to successfully have a conversation about refugees with someone who is politically conservative. If you have some good ideas of your own, I would love to hear them!

What I Mean By ‘Conservative’

In this post when I use the term ‘conservative,’ I am referring primarily to politically conservative Americans, most of whom vote Republican. While some of the conservatives you may speak to about refugees will also be Christians, I plan to write a separate “How to Talk about Refugees” post for that audience, so in this post I will focus on conservatism as the audience’s primary identifier. Now, let’s look at some tips for how to successfully talk about refugees with conservatives, whether friends, family members, or colleagues.

Start Slow

If you’re having a one-on-one conversation, don’t rush to make your point or share your opinions. Focus on being a listener at the beginning so that you can understand where your conservative friend is coming from. Listen carefully for the recurring themes and values that they may talk about, so that when the time comes for you to present your opinion, you can do so in a way that will resonate with them.

Don’t Attack Conservatism

You may or may not identify as a conservative yourself. Regardless, this is not the time to have a debate about the merits or lack thereof of conservatism or the Republican party. The purpose of your conversation is to discuss refugees and the reasons you support refugee aid and resettlement. Challenging conservatism will only result in your conversation going up in smoke (and perhaps your friendship too).

Talk About Support for Refugees as it Relates to Key Conservative Values

This point is absolutely vital, and I believe it is the key to convincing encouraging conservative Americans to welcome refugees. Politically conservative people have a core set of values, usually consisting of faith/religious freedom, family, liberty, strong military/national security, and capitalism. While there is some debate over which of these values may be most important, you’ll probably be hard-pressed to find a conservative American who doesn’t support all of these in some form.

So, your job is to talk about support for refugees as it relates to these values. This really is not hard to do, since I firmly believe that support for refugees is not a partisan issue and should not be construed as such. However, framing support for refugees this way may require a little humility on your part, especially if you do not share all of your friend’s conservative values. Let’s briefly look at each of these values in turn and consider how support for refugees is not contrary to them, but in fact strengthens them.

Faith / Religious Freedom

This is perhaps the easiest one to defend. According to the legal definition, a refugee is someone who is forced to flee their country because they are being persecuted for their faith (among other reasons). Since 1980, when the US formally began welcoming refugees, we have resettled more persecuted Christians than those from any other religion. And even for those who are not persecuted Christians, conservatives should want to support the right of any person to practice their faith in safety.

Family

Approximately 4 out of 10 refugees who are resettled to the US already have a family member who is living here. The US refugee resettlement program focuses on reuniting families who have been separated by war, persecution, and other forms of violence, so that they can live together in safety. Decreasing the number of refugees resettled means that it would take much longer for families to be reunited, with children growing up without a parent and husbands and wives living without the support of their spouse.

Liberty

Refugees are much like our ancestors and America’s own Founding Fathers who came to this land seeking religious and political liberty and better opportunities for their families. Over generations many of us have built our own version of the American Dream; refugees only want the opportunity to pursue that same American Dream for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren.

Strong Military / National Security

This is a big one, and perhaps one of the most contentious points for conservatives when it comes to supporting refugees. Try to make it clear that you are in favor of robust refugee vetting, but that you also realize the risk of terrorists infiltrating through the resettlement program is miniscule. Perhaps more effort should be expended on preventing homegrown terrorism and radicalization, rather than on barring refugees who are, by definition, the victims of terrorism and violence. You can also mention that you are in favor of a strong American military and significant foreign counter-terrorism policies precisely because they serve in part to protect the 99% of refugees who will never have the privilege of being resettled to another country.

Capitalism

Many conservatives may falsely believe that refugees contribute nothing to our economy and only live on welfare, draining our resources, but the opposite has actually been found to be true. Refugees have to pay back their travel expenses to get the US, and like any other category of Americans, are only eligible to receive welfare for a very short time. Refugees and their children are also known to start small business that provide jobs for others. In fact, Vietnamese Americans, many of whom came to the US as refugees in the 1970s, are more likely to own their own business than any other Americans. For more facts about refugees and the economy, read this post.

Avoid Framing Support for Refugees According to Liberal Values

As you discuss support for refugees as it relates to your conservative friend’s core values, try to avoid the opposite - framing support for refugees according to liberal values. Those values, generally speaking, are reciprocity, fairness, charity/charitableness, and social justice. In the next “How to Talk About Refugees” post, I will discuss these values in more detail.

Avoid Ad Hominem Arguments and Attacks

Finally, this is the golden rule of debate and lively discussion: don’t lodge personal attacks; focus on values and belief systems instead. Avoid at all costs saying that someone is un-American for not supporting refugees, or that they don’t care about suffering people, or that they must be selfish. These kinds of statements will not move your discussion forward, and they will most certainly damage your relationship with the person you’re talking to about refugees.

I hope you find these tips helpful for your next backyard BBQ, Thanksgiving dinner, or lunch break at work. Please contact me, or leave a comment if you have any helpful tips to add to this list.