The New Refugees Always Seem 'Too Different' - Pacific Standard

The New Refugees Always Seem 'Too Different'

America's melting pot legacy has developed in spite of public opinion on admitting new populations.
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Paul Ryan leaves after his weekly briefing  on Capitol Hill November 19, 2015, in Washington, D.C. Ryan spoke about a  vote to suspend Syrian refugee programs in the United States. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Paul Ryan leaves after his weekly briefing on Capitol Hill November 19, 2015, in Washington, D.C. Ryan spoke about a vote to suspend Syrian refugee programs in the United States. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

We're about to celebrate a holiday that honors a time when native residents of a land extended aid, friendship, and food to struggling new arrivals on their shores. As we gather with friends and family to celebrate, it may be worth taking a moment to see how that tradition is being honored today.

Obviously, one of the big public policy issues currently being addressed by the nation is how and whether to accept refugees from the crisis in Syria, which is being re-evaluated in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris on the 13th. Roughly two dozen states (nearly all with Republican governors) have stated opposition to housing Syrian refugees within their borders, while several states (nearly all with Democratic governors) have stated they would take such refugees in. Congress is already moving to slow the tide of refugees. Of course, there is already a substantial vetting process for admitting refugees, and "combat age" men only constitute a very small minority of such refugees. Nonetheless, opponents note, rightly, that no vetting process is 100 percent perfect, and thus argue that we should either delay or even abandon the idea of further re-settlement here.

The general point is that attitudes toward Syrian refugees are pretty much exactly the same as they have been toward any group seeking refuge within the U.S.

One particular sore point for opponents of admitting refugees is that these arguments tend to look horrible in hindsight. Strong majorities of Americans opposed accepting Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. The federal government was following public opinion when it turned away boats full of refugees; many subsequently returned to Europe and died in the Holocaust. Similarly, Western state governors who stood against the admission of Japanese Americans when those citizens were removed from their West Coast homes during World War II look small-minded and racist with the passage of time.

Today's opponents of taking in Syrian refugees generally reject such historical comparisons, however. (Although see the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia.) Yes, it was wrong to reject previous rounds of immigrants, because it turns out those groups were peaceful and just sought to live out their lives and make a living in the United States. But this current round of refugees, the thinking goes, is somehow too different. They follow a religion that is more prone to violence, they'll never properly assimilate, they reject our values, they have an instinctive hatred for the U.S., etc.

The thing is, basically every ethnic or racial group that has sought to come to the U.S. has been, at some point, singled out for being too different. Nineteenth-century journalists like Thomas Nast warned of the evils of Catholicism and the degeneracy of the Irish. Indeed, the Irish were widely caricatured as sub-humans who were incapable of understanding or participating in democracy and preferred the dictatorship of the Papacy.

The Chinese immigrants of the late 1800s were generally seen to be of such a different race as to be unable to assimilate in American culture. In the early 1900s, Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe to America were widely rumored to have alien traditions, to harbor anarchic or communist tendencies, and to be a sort of fifth column undermining the U.S. (Even those later fleeing Nazi Germany were believed to have Nazi agents among their ranks.) More recently, some have claimed that Mexican Americans seem unable or unwilling to assimilate into the dominant culture and are responsible for a disproportionate share of crime. For more on this, be sure to read Jamelle Bouie's excellent piece in Slate pointing out the fears confronting a number of groups seeking passage to the U.S. over its history.

The general point is that attitudes toward Syrian refugees are pretty much exactly the same as they have been toward any group seeking refuge within the U.S. (with the notable exception of those requesting asylum from America's adversaries like Cuba and the Soviet Union). The attitude is generally, "Look, we're a generous and open nation, but this new group is just too different and thus presents a danger." Admission of refugees, more often than not, has occurred in spite of public opinion, rather than because of it. It is notable that one of the country's proudest traits—its willingness to accept new people into the "melting pot"—has often developed against the wishes of most of its citizens.

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What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.

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