A while ago, I wrote about immigration issues from around the world, which was around the time the migrant crisis was gaining more attention. Since then, things have only become more xenophobic (to put it mildly).
After the recent terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris, fear of ISIS has reached peak levels. Specifically, there is a belief that the influx of refugees are actually allowed terrorists to sneak in, despite evidence to the contrary. Specifically, in the Paris attacks, the current evidence is that all of the suicide bombers were from the EU–domestic terrorists inspired by ISIS. In other words, there is zero correlation between the refugees, who are also victims fleeing from Assad and ISIS, and this recent terrorist attack. With the limited numbers in ISIS and the rough path for refugees arriving in Europe, it makes total sense that ISIS would try to indoctrinate and influence people who are already there rather than those who are fleeing for their lives.
Despite this fact, more than half of the U.S. governors declared this week that they would not allow Syrian refugees into their state. Ignoring the obvious constitutional issues from anyone who actually paid half attention in U.S. government class, this reaction absolutely disgusted me. It is victim-blaming in its purest and most racist form. When other people have problem and U.S. citizens are afraid, isolationism rears its ugly head. Just ask the Chinese or Irish immigrants from the 19th century. Or perhaps, let’s bring back the Eugenics movement from the late 1910’s and the 1920’s, the peak of our isolationism.
Here’s a quick history lesson for those who forgot the dark side of the Roaring 20’s. After World War I and the rise of communism in Russia, the U.S. entered a period of isolationism. Despite Woodrow Wilson’s proposed League of Nations, Congress did not ratify U.S. admission to it (boy does that sound familiar). Moreover, laws were enacted to limit the number of immigrants coming to the U.S., starting with the Immigration Act of 1917 and then quota laws that were continuously revised over the following years. It basically allowed racial profiling of immigrants entering this country. Psychologists didn’t help either, using evidence from awful intelligence testing to support the idea that those coming in from Ellis Island were intellectually inferior. The idea was that we wanted to only bring in the good immigrants in–not those inferior ones who would pollute the U.S. gene pool or corrupt the established American identity. Eugenics went as far as forced sterilization of the “feeble-minded.” And yes, these ideas were in the U.S., not Germany. In fact, the Nazis found some inspiration in the U.S. eugenics movement (although its own eugenics movement obviously had different goals than the U.S. one). These influences also impacted perceptions of Jewish refugees on the eve of WWII, which shows a strong parallel to perceptions of the refugees today. The U.S. did not change its quotas of Jewish immigrants to account for these refugees, only making serious efforts starting in 1944, a year before the war ended in Europe.
Fast-forward nearly a 100 years, and now isolationism is rearing its ugly head again, invoking our psychological biases against the “out-group.” Instead of excluding Chinese, Japanese, or Eastern Europeans, many U.S. governors want to exclude refugees from the Middle East (also the on-going issues with immigrants from Latin America, but that’s another story). The threat of terrorism and our prolonged wars in the Middle East have raised our isolationist and xenophobic tendencies to an extreme. While intelligence tests are not being promoted now, religious tests are being discussed. The vetting process for refugees can take years (a 2-year average). During this process, extensive information is gathered and about only half the applicants actually make it through. This process is way more difficult than process used by the 9/11 terrorists, who came to the U.S. using student visa and tourist visas.
But here’s the catch. Refugees don’t become terrorists. We’re so afraid of ISIS and terrorists who claim to be Muslim (but who clearly are not), yet we ignore the fact that our biggest terrorist threat is domestic terrorism. 9/11 was done by foreign terrorists, but we’ve had plenty of bombings (e.g. Oklahoma City, Atlanta Olympics, etc.) and an apparent never-ending slew of mass shootings (e.g., Aurora, Newton, Charleston, and so many others) that were all born and raised in the U.S.A. We’ve had our share of terrorists inspired by a warped view of Islam (e.g., the D.C. sniper), but we’ve also had plenty of terrorists inspired by a warped view of Christianity, too.
Moreover, the United States successfully dealt with a refugee crisis in our not-too-distant past. Operation New Life was the process by which we processed refugees fleeing Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War. They went to Guam first to be processed before coming to the U.S. We took over 100,000 refugees then, and now we’re talking about 10,000 Syrian refugees. To my knowledge, we had no issues of communists sneaking in among the Vietnamese refugees. Considering our role in destabilizing Iraq, perhaps we should also consider our role in taking in refugees created by the power vacuum in the region.
One common response to those against taking refugees is that “it isn’t my problem” or “we should take care of our own homeless first.” While we should take care of our homeless, we shouldn’t use that as an excuse. We can argue about the political and systemic issues surrounding our homelessness in the U.S. (particularly the criminalization of the homeless, a whole other post, I think), but we rarely are in an active process of helping the homeless when people cite it as a reason. Moreover, refugees have legal rights under the U.N. And as John Green pointed out, operating under the delusion that regional crises have no bearing on us is a failure to recognize how interconnected and global our world is. When the Ebola outbreak happened, a Liberian and Nigerian problem became a U.S. and international problem. A medical epidemic and social epidemic require international efforts. For those espousing Christian ideals as American ideals, then the path to helping thy neighbor should be extremely clear. Or are we just like past U.S. citizens ignoring the plight of Jewish refugees until it was far too late? Simply put, we are all people, and we should start treating these people as if they are our own.
I’m sorry for the long, preachy post here, but I was beyond ticked off reading racist, ignorant, and xenophobic reactions to the Paris attacks (because most people ignored Beirut). There is real tragedy and suffering in the world, but giving in to fear, xenophobia, and misinformation only makes the whole situation worse. Punishing refugees and spouting anti-Islam rhetoric does not help, and really, it just helps promote the message that ISIS wants. In sum, just watch this video to get the broader point.
Tldr: History repeats itself. Xenophobia and isolationism won’t solve anything.
Cover photo from Political Humor.
*edit 11/20/16: Just fixed a typo that I spotted.