US President Barack Obama’s announcement that the United States proposes to admit 110,000 refugees over the course of the next year has elicited a furious reaction from some Republican leaders. This was predictable. A spirit of xenophobia has once again taken hold in the United States, as has happened on several previous occasions in American history.
As early as 1798, just a few years after the establishment of the Republic, Congress adopted a Naturalisation law that was intended to keep out radicals who could promote sedition. The main targets were the French, who might spread the ‘Jacobin’ ideology of the French Revolution.
In the nineteenth century, a focus of exclusion was the Chinese who were explicitly kept out under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That law was not repealed until 1943, when it became embarrassing because China was an ally of the United States in the war against Japan.
In the early part of the 20th century, a number of measures were adopted to limit the admission of Southern Europeans, such as the Italians, ostensibly because they were thought to be more likely to spread the anarchist ideology than fairer skinned immigrants from Northern Europe. And so things have gone.
Today, of course, the main focus of those denouncing Obama’s proposal is Syrian refugees. Up to now, the US has admitted a few more than 10,000. So far, at least, their resettlement in the United States has seemed to go very well, though Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, Donald Trump’s running mate, has tried to keep them out of his state.
Additional refugees from Syria would constitute a minority of those that Obama proposes to admit over the next year. The number projected for all countries in the Middle East and South Asia is 40,000.
Yet in this election year, in which the Republican nominee for president swept aside his opponents for the nomination by saying he would deport 11 million undocumented immigrants from Mexico, and he would bar all Muslims from entering the United States, has made xenophobia look like a winning political strategy.
As should be apparent, a wealthy country of 320 million people can easily absorb 110,000 refugees. In the year that ends September 30, America’s goal has been 85,000 refugees. The increase is modest given the scale of the global refugee crisis. It compares poorly to neighbouring Canada, with a population just over 10 per cent of the United States.
In the brief period between 15 November, 2015 and 29 February, 2016, Canada admitted 25,000 Syrian refugees, as well as many refugees from other countries. As Canada’s highly popular Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, does not have political opponents trying to win office by exploiting xenophobia, the absorption of the Syrian refugees has been accepted not only approvingly but enthusiastically by the great majority of Canadians.
A large number of the refugees have been sponsored by Canadian church groups, parent-teacher associations and other non-governmental organisations that have paid the initial costs of resettlement, and helped the refugees to find homes, learn English, get jobs and get their children into schools.
Canada carefully screens refugees accepted for resettlement. So does the United States. Typically, the American screening programme for refugees lasts more than a year. That is possible when an orderly programme is established. It is one of the reasons that a refugee programme such as that conducted by Canada, and the one under which the United States admitted 10,000 Syrian refugees in the past year, tends to succeed.
I don’t think Americans are inherently more xenophobic than their Canadian neighbours. In such matters, as in much else, political opportunism plays a big role. It seems to bring out the worst in many people, including those denouncing the US president’s modest proposal.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Aryeh Neier is an American human rights campaigner. He was the president of the Open Society Institute from 1993-2012 and a founder of Human Rights Watch. His most recent book is Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights