Syrian Refugees and America’s Long History of Selective Immigration Policy [OP-ED]

By Waleed Shahid Nov 23, 2015

As you no doubt know, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of increasing restrictions and screening procedures for refugees fleeing ISIS and the Syrian Civil War last week. The bill, which passed 289 to 137, with 47 Democrats in favor of it, requires that the director of the FBI, the director of National Intelligence and the secretary of Homeland Security to unanimously agree that every single one of the 10,000 refugees the U.S. is allowing in is "not a threat to the security of the United States."

President Obama had already said in a press conference that the current screening process already takes up to two years and includes background checks by three separate government agencies: the FBI, Defense Department and the National Counterterrorism Center. 

Despite the fear-mongering in the House, not one of the Paris attackers has been identified as a Syrian national or recent refugee. But it does beg the question: If one of the attackers had been a refugee or a Syrian national, would that mean the U.S. would hurriedly impose collective punishment on all Syrian refugees?

In France, which has its share of problems with migration and xenophobia, the tone is quite different. After the siege on their capital city, the French government said it would resettle 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years and invest 50 million euros to support refugee housing.

As the White House has called the bill Congress passed on Thursday “untenable,” its purpose is largely symbolic. The bill’s name tells you that much: the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015–the American SAFE Act. In an election year, politicians in both major parties are blatantly tapping into their constituents’ fear that an ISIS member will sneak in with a crowd of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

Since World War II, the U.S. has admitted more refugees than any other country in the world. The State Department, using U.N. statistics, claims our country accepts more that half the world’s refugees who eventually resettle in a non-neighboring country. Our postwar shift toward a relatively more open policy concerning migrants and refugees reflected a changing, more connected world and our hope to be regarded as the "shining city on the hill."

But the American SAFE Act is one in a long tradition of xenophobic immigration laws that have also defined our national identity including the Naturalization Act of 1790, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917, the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, the Mexican repatriation program of the 1930s, Operation Wetback of 1954 and many more.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 defined American citizenship as eligible for "any alien, being a free white person.” The U.S.’ first major legislation restricting immigration was the Chinese Exclusion Act, which virtually banned all Chinese immigration to the United States. In the early 20th century, the Asiatic Barred Zone and Asian Exclusion Acts further restricted Asian immigration to the country. The Mexican repatriation program resulted in mass deportations–some estimate nearly two million–of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans without due process. Operation Wetback also resulted in the deportations of an estimated one million Mexicans.

As Dara Lind points out, the United States outwardly changed its tune on immigration after World War II, with the Jewish humanitarian crisis erupting in Europe. Before the war, American law heavily favored immigration from northern and western Europe. After the war, the United States emerged as an economic, military and moral power in the world and felt driven to absorb European refugees given the government’s failure to act during the beginnings of the Holocaust. (In one infamous incident in 1939, Americans turned back a ship carrying 937 German Jewish refugees.) “America has spent 70 years atoning for its sin by becoming the most welcoming country in the world to refugees,” writes Lind.

By the 1960s, facing the optics of the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement, President Lyndon Johnson sought to project a positive national image abroad. In 1965 he passed the most open immigration policy in American history, leading to sweeping demographic changes particularly from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Ten years later, Gerald Ford allowed 130,000 refugees from South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to resettle in the United States under the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act. Even then, some politicians recycled old arguments about the dangers posed by refugees. Republican Senators Jesse Helms and Frank Sensenbrenner declared that the United States should take care of its own first and that refugees wrecked the cultural and social unity of the country.

After this relatively brief period of openness, political fear-mongering continued to impact how our country dealt with migrants. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan welcomed 400,000 Nicaraguan refugees who were fleeing a civil war, but Salvadorans who were also trying to escape a civil war only received 100 slots. The difference? An American-backed right wing government ran El Salvador. The leftist Sandinista government ran Nicaragua.

During his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton made overtures about a more humane refugee policy in the Caribbean. Clinton criticized his opponent, George H.W. Bush, for a "cruel policy of returning Haitian refugees to a brutal dictatorship without an asylum hearing," In response Haitians built nearly 1,000 boats that could hold as many as 150,000 people. The plan was to set out to sea after Clinton’s inauguration.

But after Clinton became president, he turned back on his campaign promise to change Bush’s policy and instead labeled Haitians as "economic refugees" who did not qualify for protection. The Clinton administration then turned its attention to Operation Uphold Democracy, a military campaign to restore Haiti’s democratically elected president Jean-Bernard Aristide to power. That, Clinton claimed, would end the refugee crisis. Thanks largely to human rights advocates, the issue of turning away Haitian refugees eventually landed in the Supreme Court. The high court backed Clinton’s policy ruling that the U.S. government could, under international law, capture refugees at sea and return them to the country they were fleeing. 

Who is and who isn’t allowed to come to America has always been due to political calculations. The members of Congress who voted for the American SAFE Act on Thursday are simply dramatizing a battle that has shaped our country since its inception. 

The worst parts of the U.S. spirit have always waged an internal war when it comes to opening up our hearts, minds and laws to marginalized groups. It is up to ordinary Americans to define which national legacies we will uphold and which we will uproot. Where will we land this time?

Waleed Shahid is Philadelphia-based writer and the political director of Pennsylvania Working Families Party. He is a movement-building trainer with Momentum, tweets at @waleed2go and is a regular contributor to Colorlines.