Commentary: On welcoming Afghan refugees to America

The human tragedy in Afghanistan presents a unique challenge to the United States and, on a local level, Tampa: One where our best historical aspirations unite with our promises made to allies who stood with us. 
 
The issue is how our Tampa will welcome Afghan refugees. 
 
A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee their homeland because of persecution, war, or violence. Out of the well over 100,000 persons who evacuated from Afghanistan, many were Afghan refugees who stood by our heroic men and women in uniform and aided American diplomatic, military, or civic efforts as translators, support personnel, and interpreters. These families, who were at-risk of violent prosecution by the Taliban, look to us, after a strict vetting process, for refuge.
 
I authored a resolution in Tampa City Council, which passed with some controversy but unanimously, to formally welcome these refugees to our City. 
 
The top reason I did this was because of my own family's American journey.  Like many Americans, we climbed an American made ladder of opportunity -- a refugee ladder. This is a ladder of opportunity that should still be here for refugees today, including our friends from Afghanistan who stood by us.  
 
In 1960, my family, like so many others, fled Castro’s Cuba and found refuge in the United States. From 1960 to 1970, the number of Cubans in the United States went from 79,000 to over 400,000. 
 
My late father, Juan Viera, came here at the age of 16 with his parents and his brother. They would come first to Tampa and live in a home with other families off Columbus Avenue. My mother, Maria Viera, came first to Miami at the age of 11 with her parents and two brothers.  
 
We would live the American Dream -- and that dream started with our being refugees.   
 
Refugee families of prior generations need to have the backs of today’s refugees. 
 
Sadly, we already hear voices of opposition to Afghan refugees. Popular voices in the media warn us of the invasion of Afghans to our safe neighborhoods.
 
What these shameful voices miss, in addition to basic human decency, is that there is no more grateful or patriotic group of Americans than refugees. Few know of the unique struggle one often has to endure to call oneself an American than a refugee.
 
I remember the story of my maternal grandfather, Modesto “Api” Suarez, who came here at the age of 40 as a Cuban refugee. In 1997, he came with me and my older brother, Tony Viera, to Washington, D.C. We went to see the monuments.  We visited FDR, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and others. Tony and I went in shorts because it was summertime and hot. But not Api.  He went in a white dress shirt, nice pants, and a tie. Why? Because it was an honor for this humble man to go to the Capitol of the nation that welcomed him in his time of need. As a one-time refugee, he still looked from the outside in in some ways -- and looked in awe at this nation and its institutions. 
 
Refugees never lose that sense of awe or wonder at the gift that they have been given, and are some of the most patriotic Americans around. 
 
How we welcome Afghan refugees has much to do with our American Way and the soul of our country and community. In his song "Long Walk Home," Bruce Springsteen accurately wrote that the “flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone -- who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.” In reality, those lyrics are an aspiration and challenge for good Americans to meet. In our best moments, we have been the great country that welcomes those who are lepers in their own land on account of their religion, family, or political affiliation. In 1960, that great country that Mr. Springsteen sang about as an ideal was there for my family.
 
But there has always been a tug of war over that inclusive America and the nativist vision of America, where our compassion is preempted by our irrational fears. We saw it in the age of the Know Nothing party. We saw it in the age of the Nativists of the early 20th century. We saw it in the McCarthy era, when Americans saw their loyalty questioned on account of their country of origin. And we saw it in our own time, when starting in 2017, refugee admissions were savagely cut by 90%.
 
This is a stand of compassion that we can make right here in Tampa. Contrary to the assertions of some, this is not about foreign policy. Rather, this is an effort and aspiration that is as local of an issue as filling a pothole. It is about our values when it comes to refugees. And we have precedent: In 2015, when our then-Florida Governor Rick Scott opposed welcoming Syrian refugees to Florida, Mayors Bob Buckhorn of Tampa and Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg welcomed these refugees. This was a local gesture of values -- and a statement of where St. Petersburg and Tampa stood on this moral issue. 
 
We need to make our voice heard today on the plight of Afghan refugees. And we need to make it heard not only through symbolic resolutions, which connect this cause to our best aspirational American values, but through action.

Thankfully, we have local organizations on the front lines in protecting the dignity of these Afghan refugees. Organizations ranging from Radiant Hands to ICNA (Islamic Circle of North America) to Lutheran Refugee Services to Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, and so many others are providing remarkable relief to these families, along with critical federal help from the Office of Congresswoman Kathy Castor.

Luis Viera is a Tampa City Council member who was raised in the North Tampa/Temple Terrace area. He is a 2000 graduate of the University of South Florida and a 2003 graduate of Stetson College of Law. He was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2003. 

 
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