Current debates surrounding President Obama’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016 have revealed deep political fissures in the United States. Until recently, criticism focused on the Obama administration’s doing too little to aid people fleeing the bloody civil war in Syria, but Republican leaders have now seized on the terror attacks in France, while stoking anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, to oppose refugee resettlement on national security grounds.
While the White House and its allies dismiss their opponents’ position as xenophobic and un-American, this line of argument is also simplistic, as our history with refugees is an ambivalent one. Over the past century, the prospect of settling refugees has tested Americans’ self-avowed benevolence, underscoring our conflicted attitudes about newcomers and raising inconvenient questions about the extension of US power abroad.
As migrants, refugees are distinct. They are a displaced people escaping danger who, unlike conventional immigrants, have not voluntarily left their homes for reasons like family reunification or economic opportunity. While in the abstract, humanitarian concern for refugees is a broadly agreed upon principle, we have been tentative when it comes to admitting living, breathing people. During the late 1930s, for instance, as European Jews were fleeing Nazi aggression, two-thirds of Americans opposed increasing immigration ceilings to admit them, citing fears that Bolsheviks or German agents might slip into the country. This was also a time of international isolation, marked by economic depression and low immigration. It was not until 1944, as Americans learned more about the horrors of the Holocaust, that special provisions were made to admit Jews.
With the onset of the Cold War, anti-communism and diplomacy guided US actions on refugees and revealed the selective application of humanitarian compassion. For much of the second half of the 20th century, policies allowing refugees’ entry were implemented in an ad hoc fashion and usually only applied to people fleeing communist regimes. For example, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 prompted the admission of tens of thousands of Hungarians, and Cuba’s socialist revolution of 1959 led to the United States accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees from that country. In these cases federal officials opened the doors by invoking emergency powers, despite most Americans’ opposition due to concerns about potential communist infiltrators and other “undesirables.” By contrast, during the 1980s, Haitians fleeing the dictatorial but US-backed Duvalier regime were repeatedly denied asylum or refugee status on the grounds that they were economic migrants whose human rights had not been violated.
After the Vietnam War, Americans hesitated to admit Southeast Asian refugees, due in part to a legacy of anti-Asian immigration exclusion and a desire for closure from a divisive war. Because people were fleeing Communist governments, politicians acceded that the United States had a duty to admit them, and Americans’ urgency to do so deepened after learning about tragedies like the plight of “boat people” and the “killing fields” of Cambodia.
Ideological commitments and moral compassion aside, the United States’ obligations also stemmed from a history of interventions in Indochina going back to the 1950s. Determined to contain communism, it committed troops to fighting in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973 and conducted secret bombings and military operations in Cambodia and Laos. After the communist victories in these countries in 1975, persecution and violent purges of dissidents and minorities prompted massive exoduses, a segment of which the United States admitted.
Four years later, facing pressure to accept more refugees, two-thirds of Americans opposed increases due to worries about their assimilability and the prospect that they would drain public resources. Eventually, about 1 million Southeast Asian refugees were resettled in the United States, and they have inarguably been woven into the fabric of our nation over the past 40 years despite the enormous hardships they have faced.
While the troubles in Syria seem removed by comparison, recent US actions there, as well as a long history of meddling in Middle East affairs, underscore the US role and obligations in the current crisis. Viewed one way, modeling moral leadership on the refugee issue can be an effective anti-terror strategy against ISIS propaganda that portrays the United States as an anti-Muslim nation.
The debate about admitting refugees, moreover, begs a moral and philosophical question about the consequences of US foreign intervention: If we are committed to toppling the Assad regime in Syria and defeating ISIS through proxy fighting and aerial bombings, why would we withhold refuge to those fleeing the turmoil?
We might also keep a longer history in view, because despite decades of diplomatic and military entanglements in the region – in the name of anti-communism, Israel, oil and more recently anti-terrorism – our perspective on the Syrian refugee crisis is strikingly myopic. And yet, as we witness another humanitarian catastrophe, some of our leaders raise the specter of terrorists entering the United States, glossing over the fact that refugee screening entails multiple and lengthy rounds of examination by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the United States, making entry for anyone enormously difficult. It defies reason to think individuals with terrorist aspirations would submit themselves to a multiyear vetting process that probes into every aspect of their past and present associations.
The interrelated propositions framing the debate about Syrian refugees – that we have a moral obligation to provide shelter to those facing imminent danger, and that the US bears a responsibility because of its interventions in the country and region – point to a dilemma we have confronted before. Additionally, how we treat refugees mirrors not just our mixed feelings about newcomers and the world outside, but also ignorance about the world within our borders (thus highlighting an irony of the promise of US safe harbor). In the war on terrorism, our imprecise understandings of its origins and trajectories have given rise to enemies that are creations of our own bigotries, which pervade discussions about Syrian refugees and have made scapegoats of Americans of Arab and South Asian descent.
After President Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980, which created a comprehensive system for processing refugee and asylum cases, he proclaimed, “[It] is the historical policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands.” Although not entirely accurate, this statement echoes a challenge to which we ought to rise.