Anne C. Richard grew up around a lot of potatoes—but nowhere near Idaho.
"The east end of Long Island was once famous for growing potatoes before Idaho conquered the market," she said. "Now, you'll mostly see vineyards in the area of Long Island where I grew up. We were a lot more normal than the fabulous Hamptons."
When she was in high school, Richard dreamed of leaving what she called her "small, quiet" town and seeing the world. She made those dreams come true: she visited nearly every corner of the planet, working first for the Peace Corps and the International Rescue Committee and ultimately as Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration for the Obama administration. After leaving the State Department earlier this year, she began teaching at Georgetown University and is a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.
Just prior to her Monday, Oct. 23, visit to Boise, when she'll be a guest at the Frank Church Conference on Public Affairs, Richard spoke about the tenuous state of the State Department and the ongoing global refugee crisis.
Assuming you have friends and former colleagues still working at the State Department, can you confirm that employees are leaving public service at an unacceptable rate?
My former colleagues were a lot less interested in the ebb and flow of politics and instead cared much more about doing the best job possible to get aid to refugees, but now, politics have intruded. To have a president whose White House issues all sorts of statements that are antagonistic to those refugee programs is a very strange experience for them. The definition of what used to be doing a good job inside the State Department is now very uncertain. They're trying to do the best job they can, despite that stress and uncertainty.
Let's talk about how President Trump has scaled down limits on future refugee resettlement to the U.S.
One of the reasons I was so surprised last year was [that] this became such a hot campaign issue. I thought most Americans were very proud of the fact that we're a nation of immigrants and refugees. I thought that was well-established. It seems to go counter to our history of immigration; and a ban on Muslims coming to the U.S. is certainly counter to our history of freedom of religion and an insult to Muslim Americans.
Can you speak to the perceived threat to America coming from refugees versus the real threat of domestic radicalism?
Following the November 2015 attacks in Paris, there were erroneous stories that the attacks were carried out by refugees. They were terrorists who used a perversion of Islam to inspire them, but they were Europeans. Suddenly, refugees were seen as people who had terrorist sympathies, and that was completely false but prevailing in our discourse.
Millions of refugees have come to the U.S. with a very good record of putting down roots, enriching our country and, for the most part, being law abiding citizens. They're no more likely to get in trouble with the law than any other group of Americans. Domestic issues are not my expertise, but look at Las Vegas and the lives that were lost there. No refugee has been involved in anything like that. Scientists and healthcare professionals around the world deal with real threats and public safety, and whenever I would tell them some Americans were concerned about a tiny fraction of the world's refugees coming the U.S., they would say that's not logical. If you're afraid and really want to be safe, buckle your seatbelt when you drive and get your inoculations.
I would be remiss if I didn't ask about your upcoming visit to Idaho and the opportunity to talk with people who want to be more engaged with foreign affairs.
That's why I really like to get away from the Washington D.C. beltway. People care about what's happening in the rest of the word, but there's so much misinformation out there. I really appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight and provide information to people about how much thought and care went into the programs that led the U.S. to be the leader in humanitarian operations around the world. Part of what I'm trying to do is let people know that we provided funding that made the U.S. the backbone of international humanitarian responses, and that's something Americans can be proud of.