Lowlights of a Congressional Hearing on the Refugee Crisis

On November 4, the House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats held a hearing titled, “Challenge to Europe: The Growing Refugee Crisis.”  The full hearing is below (it begins roughly 59 minutes into the video).

Going into it I thought I would hear members of the committee talk about how the U.S. could cooperate with our European allies to alleviate their burden and what we would do to address the crisis.  Instead, I heard Congressmen resort to fearmongering and partisanship.

In his opening statement, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), said that if the flow of refugees went unchecked, “it will change the fundamental nature of European countries.”  He went on to add that as a result of the influx of refugees, “what we are witnessing is the destruction of Western Civilization.”  After that he focused on violence and extremism, but at no point did he discuss what the United States was doing to help, nor did he offer possible solutions to the crisis.  For Rohrabacher, the refugee crisis is not a humanitarian issue; instead, it is about preserving Western culture and stemming the flow of the barbarian hordes.

His colleague, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), began his statement by pointing out that not all of the refugees are from Syria and that some may have “other motives as well.”  The problem with this line of thinking is that a refugee, no matter where they are from, is still a refugee and deserves humanitarian assistance.  The U.S. cannot say that only refugees from certain countries deserve our help.  Additionally, the scare tactic that they could be coming with sinister intentions is unfounded and quite frankly, ridiculous.

Rep. Poe also mentioned that Hungary, which has built a border fence and used tear gas and water cannons on refugees, is only trying to protect its national sovereignty.  He went on to say “the United States, rather than trying to understand the situation in Hungary, even last week the U.S. ambassador dressed down the Hungarians, for what the State Department believed was not the right course in dealing with migrants.  That does nothing to help our relationship with Hungary, a NATO ally.”  First, does Poe really believe the State Department and other American government officials are not trying to understand the situation?  Really?  Second, it is unclear what Poe is referring to in regards to Ambassador Bell, although it is probably her speech from October 28 titled, “We Will Build a Stringer Bridge.”  In the speech, Bell address numerous areas of cooperation with Hungary but also mentions issues of concern, notably corruption, a free civil society, freedom of the press, and the refugee crisis.  Countries that are truly allies should be able to express concern about issues; keeping quiet only exacerbates the problems.

Rep. Rohrabacher also jumped on the Hungary bandwagon, stating that it has been a “tremendous friend and asset to the peace and stability of the world.”  He went on to take a jab at the White House, saying it should stop complaining over every little thing they disagree with.  I’m sorry, but those issues of concern are not “little things.”  For somebody who claims to be “a most forceful spokesman for human rights and democracy around the world,” Rohrabacher’s words seem contradictory.

Rohrabacher continues to praise Hungary and resorts to fearmongering- “Hungary was totally justified in what it is doing to try to stem the flow, and frankly if our European allies are not willing to stem the flow of large numbers of people who are not native to their territory, they will lose their territory.”  Basically, this U.S. congressman just gave his support to the xenophobic far-right throughout Europe.  That’s right, if you don’t keep non-Europeans out, you will lose your country.

The only highlight came during Rep. Albio Sires‘ (D-NJ) opening statement.  In it, he proposed the U.S. should look to the root causes of migration and “for a political solution to the war in Syria.”  Rep. Sires went on to say that the world looks to the U.S. “to lead when it comes to the refugee resettlement.”  The problem, of course, is that we are not providing that leadership.  We have fallen far short in resettling refugees from the crisis; 10,000 pales in comparison to the over 1 million in Lebanon and over 2 million in Turkey.  Fortunately, he went on to add that the U.S. “can do much more,” and that we must “provide assistance and increased coordination to our European allies to help them cope with the number of migrants and refugees.”

Besides the close-minded scare tactics and pandering to Hungary exhibited by Reps. Poe and Rohrabacher, the other concern I had about this hearing is that out of the thirteen members of this subcommittee, only five showed up (Reps. Weber and Frankel make appearances during the questioning of the two witnesses).  If the refugee crisis is truly the largest migrant crisis the world has known, as was pointed out during the hearing, then where were the other members?  Wouldn’t we want “all hands on deck” to address this serious issue and from a humanitarian response to help our European allies?  (It should be noted that one member was absent due to a heart attack.)

My fear is that absurd sentiments like those from Reps. Poe and Rohrabacher will win the day and influence policy to the point where the U.S. fails to act and give the necessary assistance so desperately needed.

Thanks for reading.


Lessons from Europe: Child Allowance

Governments in both the United States and Europe recognize that having children places greater financial burden on parents.  In the U.S., the federal government has in place the Child Tax Credit.  Taxpayers with children “may be able to reduce [their] federal income tax by up to $1,000 for each qualifying child under the age of 17.”  The problem with the CTC is that it is taxpayers might qualify for the credit, and even then, the amount might not be the maximum of $1,000.  In Europe, on the other hand parents receive monthly allowances to help with the costs of raising children.

Children’s Allowances
Instead of listing the amount for each country, I am going to use Germany, Great Britain, and Sweden as examples.   In Germany, parents receive an allowance called Kindergeld.  According to the German Embassy in the U.S., “In 2010 the amount paid for a couple’s first child was raised 20 euro to a sum of 184 euro per month [$207] per child. For a second child, parents receive an additional 184 euro per month and for a third or fourth child, 190 [$214] and 215 [$242] euro respectively.  Parents or guardians are eligible to receive Kindergeld at least until the child’s 18th birthday.”    So, a family with three children, for example, would receive 558 euro [$628] per month.  That makes the $1,000 CTC seem quite paltry.

In Great Britain, parents receive £20.70 per week [$32] for the eldest or only child, and £13.70 [$21] per additional child.  Going back to our family with three children, that comes to around £192.40 [$296] per month.

Finally, in Sweden, “Child allowance is SEK 1 050 per child [$124]. The amount of large family supplement depends on how many child allowances you receive.”  The allowance is paid every month up until the age of sixteen.  Under this policy, our family of three would receive SEK 3754 [$443.11] per month.  Here’s a helpful chart breaking this down:

Swedish Child Allowance
Swedish Child Allowance

For more information, the EU has a great website called the “European Platform for Investing in Children,” which includes country profiles and summarizes each Member State’s policies.

If American legislators were truly concerned about family values, they would enact policies to establish children’s allowances.  The CTC does not even come close to helping parents with the costs associated with raising children.  An extra $300-400 per month could mean the difference between a parent working a second job or not.  Receiving children’s allowances could also help improve child nutrition, which in turn, helps with the health of a child and could reduce healthcare costs.  According to UNICEF, the child poverty rate in the U.S. in 2012 was 32.2%, up from 30.1% in 2008.  A monthly child allowance could reduce our rate of child poverty.

Change in Child Poverty
Change in Child Poverty

It should be noted that there is one case where parents can receive a monthly children’s allowance in the U.S.- foster care.  Here in Wisconsin, foster parents can receive between $232 and $499 per month, depending on the level of care.  If a state government realizes that a monthly allowance is helpful to cover the basic needs of foster children, why doesn’t every family, regardless of whether they have foster children or not, receive one?

Thanks for reading.

Book Idea: Cycling The Iron Curtain Trail

I first learned about the Iron Curtain Trail last summer.  I don’t remember how I found out about it then, but it popped up again this year in an article from the German Embassy.  Both times I read about it I thought it would be great to bike the trail and then write a book about it.  Up until now, I’ve kept this idea to myself because I thought it would be too “out there.”

I envision focusing on three topics- the history of the Cold War, remembering the Cold War, and bicycle/sustainable tourism.  We learn about the American side of the Cold War but very little about the European states, especially the ones along the Iron Curtain.  Sure, we’re taught about Berlin (Airlift, Wall, 1989, etc.), maybe a little about East Berlin in 1953 or Hungary in 1956, the Prague Spring, and of course, the events of 1989.  With this book, however, I want to tell the story of the Iron Curtain states and the experiences of the people living there during the Cold War.  Perhaps I could also talk about the current tensions between the West and Russia, to draw some parallels.

I would also like to see how people living along the trail memorialize the Cold War.  What types of monuments or memorials do they have, if any?  If they don’t have them, why not?  What do they teach about the Cold War in school?

The third topic is more about what Americans can learn about bicycle/sustainable tourism.  I’d like to talk with government officials and citizens about the effects of cycling on their towns, villages, cities, etc.  How do they promote bicycle/sustainable tourism?  What’s worked, and what hasn’t?  Cities in Western Europe, e.g. Copenhagen, Amsterdam, receive a lot of attention for their bicycle-friendly cultures (and rightly so), but I would like to give these Iron Curtain cities a chance to showcase their achievements.  Finally, I want to explore the role of the EU and The Greens in this project and write about their successes and obstacles to the project.

As a side note- if this dream were to somehow become a reality, I would blog about the experience in addition to gathering material for the book.

While this sounds like an amazing idea to me, the reality is that I don’t even know where to begin with proposing it.  (That’s sort of why I’m writing this blog post and hoping that somebody has some ideas)  I would have to take sabbatical, but those aren’t paid, so I would need to find funding to take the place of my salary.  Do I look for sponsors in the cycling world?  European sponsors?

As for publishing, do I find a publisher before or after funding?  This isn’t a scholarly monograph, so university presses are out of the running, but then what type of book is it?  History/policy/travel/sport?

Finally, I have to take my family into account.  I can’t just pack up and leave my wife and kids for months while I cycle the trail (or can I? hhmmmm).  Do we take the year off and homeschool the kids while we’re in Europe?  I think it would be a tremendous experience for my kids, but could they handle traveling for an extended period of time?  We would also need to find money to make up for my wife’s salary, as well as lodging while we travel from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea.  What kind of sponsors could we find who are willing to pay for two teachers to take their children on a bicycle tour in Europe?

If anybody has any ideas about how to make this whole thing happen, I would love to hear them.

Thanks for reading.

Lessons from Europe: Political Gatherings

For the second post in my series, “Lessons from Europe,” I want to discuss the political gatherings in Sweden and Denmark- Almedalen and Folkemødet.  These two showcase what politics and democracy should be about, and they should be copied by states here in the U.S.

Almedalen and Folkemødet
Almedalen and Folkemødet are week-long gatherings for political parties, politicians, journalists, NGOs, non-profits, citizens, and more.  Almedalen has been running for over forty years and actually inspired Denmark to start Folkemødet.  The Swedish gathering is eight days and is organized by the parliamentary parties.  In 2014 it had over 3,500 seminars/panels in its program with topics ranging from foreign policy to healthcare to transportation policy.  In addition to the daily seminars, “the leaders from each of Sweden’s 8 political parties hold speeches every night. They use it as a opportunity to focus their party’s message, put forth new policies or take potshots at their opponents.” (Radio Sweden, “What is Almedalen?“)  Even the Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, spoke at the gathering.

The Folkemødet characterizes its gathering as “a meeting of people and politicians, where Bornholm provides the venue for Danish politicians to debate current political issues.”  This year the gathering was held for five days and included over 2,700 seminars/panels, with “767 parties, organizations and companies participating as organizers of events.” (2015 Organizers)  This year, the U.S. ambassador to Denmark, Rufus Gifford, participated in a panel on TTIP.  In fact, the tweet below is how I learned about Folkemødet (and then Almedalen).

Tweet from @AMEMBDKPRESS https://twitter.com/AMEMBDKPRESS/status/609362229490749440

The lessons for the U.S. is that we need to have gatherings like Almedalen and Folkemødet in each of the states.  Here in Wisconsin, the two main political parties hold annual conventions over the course of a weekend.  When you’re limiting the voices heard to those of one party, that’s not really the foundation for substantial, vigorous discussion.  I attended one convention, and it was certainly energizing for members of the party, but that was about it.

Given the increasing cynicism of the American electorate towards our two-party system, we should strive to hold week-long gatherings with voices from all state parties.  In Wisconsin, that means including the Libertarian Party, Green Party, and the Constitution Party.  Additionally, we should also hear from the hundreds of non-profits and journalists in the state.  The more voices that participate and are heard, the better for our system.

While it would be great to have such a gathering, I have to wonder if it is even possible in our current political climate.  Polarization has increased over the years, and hateful, ignorant rhetoric makes civilized political discussions rare.  Can Americans move beyond that and hold a gathering like those in Sweden or Denmark?  If not, then what does that say about our future?

Thanks for reading.


Lessons from Europe: Civic Engagement

This is the first post in a new series I am trying out, “Lessons from Europe,” and I wanted to begin with a topic that it is very important to me- civic engagement.  It is essential for the future of democracy to have youth involved in the process.  They should understand the political systems and policymaking processes where they live, and they should have their voices heard by our elected leaders and government officials.  This point is reinforced by Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states the following-

“1. States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

2. For this purpose, the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law.”

I found two great examples of youth involvement in the political process in Europe- Children’s Parliaments and the European Youth Event.

Children’s Parliaments
In his book, Europe’s Promise, Steven Hill talks about the Children’s Parliaments in Germany.  These bodies are composed of school-aged children and meet throughout the year.  Hill writes that they “convene and debate issues and are actually permitted to propose legislation to the local city council.” (p. 243, italics in original)

In Finland, students 15-16 years old have the opportunity to participate in the Youth Parliament.  According to the brochure the Embassy of Finland sent me, “Its objective is to promote social participation and integration among young people and foster interest in social affairs in general and Parliament in particular.”  The brochure makes the point that one of the most important pieces of participating in the Youth Parliament is contacting MP’s and local government officials.

European Youth Event
In addition to the Children’s Parliaments, I also found something called the European Youth Event.  The EYE was a three-day event organized by the European Parliament and other agencies.  During the event thousands of Europeans ages 16-30 discussed a variety of topics pertinent to Europe.  According to the report, “The core aim of the European Youth Event was to demonstrate that young people are willing to engage in developing a brighter future for a more prosperous, inclusive, innovative, and sustainable European Union, and that they are an invaluable source for ideas on how to achieve this.”  (p.9, italics mine)  After the EYE finished, the final report was given to MEP’s, and some of the participants were allowed to present ideas to MEP’s themselves.  I think its great that one of the main institutions of the EU, along with other bodies, see the importance of youth participating in the political process and organize an event such as the EYE.

The biggest lesson here is that while youth in the US are allowed to speak at local meetings (especially school board meetings) and write to their elected officials, our local/state governments do not organize anything like the Children’s Parliaments or EYE.  We have simulations like Model UN or, in the case of Wisconsin, Badger Girls and Badger Boys, but they are just simulations.  To really make them more beneficial to participants, they should be able to present their work to elected officials or policymakers and take their discussions “to the next level.”  Why don’t we have an American Youth Congress that gathers in Washington, DC, for three or four days, discussing issues and presenting ideas for solutions to members of Congress and other officials?  Surely, we could have something like that at the state level.  The key though, is that like the Children’s Parliament and EYE, our actual legislatures must be involved in organizing them and promoting them.  Our elected officials must see American youth as invaluable as well.

The other lesson is more of a broader issue- the US has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  We signed it (five years after it entered into force), but we have not ratified it.  Why is that?  What are waiting on?

In my next post, I will continue this theme of political participation and discuss the political festivals in Sweden (Almedalen) and Denmark (Folkemødet.)

Thanks for reading.