Refugees revisited: resettlement in the Trump era

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By Jake Baum
For the Mitzpeh
@JakeatUMD

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In November 2015, I wrote a piece on the question of the Syrian refugee resettlement program and what American policy should be, moving forward after the terror attacks in Paris. In that piece, I asserted that “even with the intensive screening process put in place by Congress already, there is no way to ensure that New York or Washington D.C. will not become another Paris.” After intense reconsideration over the past two years on the subject, I have decided to reverse my position. This is my explicit rejection of that position.

In light of President Donald Trump’s recent executive order, which halts the refugee resettlement programs from seven majority-Muslim countries (also known as the “Muslim ban”), I feel it is time to re-examine the issue. It is time to explain why, through consideration of Jewish historical precedent, I have changed my opinion on the matter.

The case against accepting refugees into American and European society is based on the fear of terrorism and “potential terrorists.” I have previously used this reasoning to justify my stance on resettlement. However, when it comes to the “Muslim ban,” this reasoning is incredibly misguided.

While President Trump has used 9/11, and the few domestic terror attacks that have occurred since, as the reason behind his order, the facts tell a very different story.

In reality, neither the domestic terror attacks since 9/11, nor 9/11 itself, involved anyone from these nations. Similarly, only three refugees of the 750,000 resettled since 9/11 have been discovered plotting terror attacks against the U.S. In fact, a large majority of incidents of domestic terrorism  since 9/11 were perpetrated by American citizens. To blame this increase in terrorist activity on the refugee resettlement program is severely misguided.

But of course, as the saying goes, “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This is not the first time that xenophobia and fear has led to American refusal of help to those who needed us most.

In his inauguration speech, President Trump used the phrase “America First” to justify his more isolationist policy proposals, most notably an aversion to the plans for refugee acceptance that Obama made in 2015.

For many of his supporters, this was reassuring. It was a promise to focus on our domestic issues such as illegal immigration and the economy – issues upon which many people based their presidential vote.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

             Photo: Wikimedia Commons

However, for many like me, the phrase “America First” evoked a motive much more sinister. As only a third-generation descendant of a refugee from Poland after World War II, the Holocaust is still very fresh in my mind (and the minds of so many others).

In 1939, 937 Jewish refugees trying to escape the Third Reich on the S.S. St. Louis were turned away at the port in Miami, Florida by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. At the time, American public opinion was against them as well. In a Fortune poll that same year, as much as 68 percent of the American public agreed with the sentiment that refugees should be “kept out.”

On the right, the most significant argument against this comparison is that “There was no international conspiracy of German Jews in the 1930s attempting to carry out daily attacks on civilians on several continents.” But of course, that ignores the value of individual perception when it comes to refugees.

The right’s argument against Syrian refugee resettlement is built on fear – a fear of ISIS terrorism that is so strong it clouds their sense of humanity. This fear fits right into the historical narrative of xenophobia in this country.

In 1938, Daily Mail carried a similar message to alarm its readers and rally them to reject Jewish refugees. On this suspicion, they were sent to their deaths at the hands of the Nazi Party. Additionally, in 1939, the American government leveraged a similar fear of Nazi infiltration of Jewish refugees to block thousands of innocent Jews from coming to America.  

I, for one, do not want to repeat the mistakes of American history. As a Jew, I am not okay with the Trump administration’s failure to learn from our history. I am not okay with the rising acceptance of xenophobia, antisemitism and Islamophobia that has characterized the Trump campaign and administration alike.

Most importantly, I am not okay with ignoring the Statue of Liberty’s message to “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.” I am not okay with fear as the deciding factor for our humanitarianism and foreign policy.

When it comes to Syrian refugees, I, for one, am not afraid.

Jake is a senior international business major. He can be reached at jakebaum1@gmail.com.

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