In an on-line rant shortly before he entered a synagogue and murdered 11 people, Robert Bowers railed against asylum seekers and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a refugee-assistance organization: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Who are these “invaders” and why do we allow them into our country?

The first thing to know is that not every foreign person who faces harm abroad qualifies for protection in the United States. The definition of “refugee” is circumscribed by law. The feared harm must be “on account of” a protected ground: race, religion, nationality, particular social group or political opinion. These categories reflect our American values, and when we grant asylum, we demonstrate our commitment to those values.

I am an attorney who specializes in political asylum. Every day, I represent non-citizens who are seeking refugee status in our country. My clients include activists for democracy, peace, and women’s rights, journalists who have stood up for free speech, advocates for gay and lesbian rights, members of religious minorities who have risked their lives for their faith, and interpreters and aid workers who have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with our own country’s soldiers and diplomats in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. These people—asylum seekers and refugees—have risked their careers, their property, and their lives in order to help further the values that are foundational to our nation and to all who believe in freedom and liberty.

Critics of our humanitarian immigration policies claim that asylum is merely a kindness we extend to needy recipients. That we get nothing in return. This view of asylum is false.

Since its beginning—during the Cold War in the 1950's—asylum was about advancing America’s strategic interests. In those early days, we used the asylum system to demonstrate moral superiority over our Soviet adversaries. We celebrated famous dissidents, athletes, and artists who defected to the West. Now, the Soviet Union is gone, but asylum remains an essential tool of U.S. foreign policy. We gain tangible benefits from asylum. And I am not talking only about the influx of talented, brilliant people who add to our nation’s strength.

When we give asylum to interpreters who served with our soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, we demonstrate our loyalty to those who work with us. When we grant asylum to women’s rights advocates, we show our support for the cause of gender equality. When we support journalists, we show that we stand for free speech. And when we grant asylum to religious minorities, we reinforce our founding principle of Religious Freedom.

Imagine for a moment what it would mean to deny asylum to Iraqi interpreters, woman’s rights advocates, journalists or members of religious minorities. Imagine what that would say about us, about our country. Imagine what message it would send to those around the world who are working for the values that we, in our best moments, embody.

When we offer refuge to those who have stood with us, and who have risked their lives to advance the values that we cherish (and which we too often take for granted), we send a powerful message: When you work with us, when you work for the values we believe in, America is with you. And when activists around the world have confidence that America is on their side, it helps them continue their struggle for justice.

And it helps us too. If we want their cooperation and loyalty going forward, our allies need to know that we are there for them. That we will protect them if they need our help. Our asylum and refugee systems demonstrate–in a tangible way—our loyalty to those who stand with us, and this helps us advance our own national interests and our moral values.

Asylum seekers and refugees are not invaders. They are people who we choose to allow into our country. We make this decision based on our own foundational values: democracy, human rights, women’s rights, press freedom, religious liberty. Our humanitarian immigration system does not threaten our country. On the contrary, it represents our nation’s highest ideals made manifest.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: