Another Round of Fear: Refugees in America

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Another Round of Fear: Refugees in America

In 2013, a young mother crosses the border from Syria and becomes a refugee. (Photo: UNHCR / S. Rich)

In the wake of the massacre in Orlando on June 12, 2016, the likely Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, again stated that the United States should ban Muslims from entering the country, according to the New York Times.Although the shooter was an American citizen, Trump reiterated (and praised) his recommended prohibition from December 2015, a prohibition that was then primarily directed at the 10,000 Syrian refugees the Obama administration pledged to resettle in the U.S. Of course, these calls for banning Muslims pander to Americans’ fear of refugees, a fear that is largely without historical justification. Last year, after the terrorist attacks in Paris and the ensuing concern that Middle Eastern immigrants could pose a threat to the security of the United States, a number of articles and opinion pieces, including Jamelle Bouie’s essay in Slate (November 17, 2015), pointed out that this is not the first time Americans have been afraid of immigrants and refugees. The history of fearing refugees bears repeating because it puts the current crisis in context.

The United States has a long and complicated history regarding the acceptance of refugees, a history often complicated by ethnicity and religion (as I have detailed in my book Bilingual Public Schooling in the United States: A History of America’s “Polyglot Boardinghouse”). The Irish Catholics escaping the potato famine in the 1840s, the Chinese seeking asylum during the Opium Wars, the eastern European Jews evading pogroms in the late nineteenth century, the Mexicans fleeing civil war in the 1910s, and the German Jews absconding the Nazi regime (as well as, more recently, the Cubans in the 1960s and Vietnamese in the 1970s) were all, in one way or another, refugees.

All of those groups encountered a great deal of discrimination as they settled in the United States, largely because of their non-Protestant convictions and their “race,” which, in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, was equated with nationality (and non-Anglos were considered inferior “racial stock”). The prejudice against the Chinese and, then, the eastern and southern Europeans became so strong that the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1880s and the Immigration Restriction Act in the 1920s, which greatly curtailed the flow of non-western Europeans into the nation. Despite the fears and discrimination of the native-born Americans, these groups of refugees and their children became an invaluable part of U.S. society.

Perhaps one of the most interesting examples of a social concern about refugees in American history was the arrival of the so-called German Forty-eighters. Rightfully fearing repercussions for their part in the failed European revolutions for democracy in 1848, these refugees fled to the United States en mass. Many of the German Forty-eighters were quite radical for their day and, as “free thinkers,” criticized America’s institutions, notably Christianity. As Germans, the Forty-eighters were persecuted by the conservative Whig Party and its xenophobic offshoot the American Party (the Know-Nothings), whose slogan was “America for the Americans.”

Regardless of the alarm many felt about these refugees—an alarm often fabricated by the Know-Nothings—the Forty-eighters became an extremely engaged and civic-minded group of newcomers. Often rising to leadership roles in local communities and, in the case of Secretary of Interior Carl Schurz, in national politics, the Forty-eighters advocated for better public schooling, the abolition of slavery, and other progressive reforms.

Like many immigrant groups, the Forty-eighters maintained some of their Old-World customs—especially their language, preferring to be German-English bilinguals rather than English-only monolinguals—and negotiated ways to meld their traditional cultural identities with the mores of U.S. society. Nevertheless, assimilation to America’s customs, especially as the second and third generations entered the nation’s public schools, was inevitable, and many aging German-Americans lamented that their children and grandchildren could no longer speak German fluently, a common concern among many immigrant groups. 

When the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, the children and grandchildren of the Forty-eighters, along with other German immigrants, were considered “un-American” and deemed potential enemies by the court of public opinion and, unofficially, by many leaders of the nation, including Woodrow Wilson’s administration. The fear of German-Americans during the war was hysterical; rumors circulated that they were plotting to poison food and water and to bomb factories and bridges (of course, none of these rumors were true). Yet, the historical record shows that German-Americans were quite loyal to their adopted homeland, serving the Allied Powers during the duration of the war.

The example of the Forty-eighters is informative. The Forty-eighters were a group of refugees who were German-speaking, non-Christian radicals critical of many U.S. institutions. Although discriminated against and, during the war, demonized and feared, these refugees posed no threat to the nation and, ultimately, helped build a better American society.

From a historical perspective, the fear of Syrian and other refugees is largely unwarranted. Previous groups of immigrants, including those that were perceived as threatening to America’s social fabric, proved to be vital members of the citizenry. Additionally, the fear of Middle Eastern immigrants seems to ignore the assimilating power of America’s culture and institutions, especially its public schools (considering the loss of cultural roots, the assimilation of immigrants is, in itself, problematic, although a historical reality). It is therefore curious that many of the political leaders who express the greatest concern about refugees are simultaneously failing to support a public education system that has introduced children to democratic ideals and processes for generations and, instead, are moving the nation toward a hodgepodge of privately run, for-profit charter schools without a civic mission. 

In the days and weeks following the Orlando tragedy, the far Right likely will have little to say about the LGBT community, but its fearmongering and political opportunism again will be on display by calling for a halt to United States’ acceptance of Syrian refugees. The manufactured fear (of Syrian families hoping to escape the civil war) that Trump and other Republicans are selling Americans is a distraction from something much more terrifying: once again letting xenophobes dictate the Unites States’ response to a global humanitarian crisis.

Paul J. Ramsey

Paul J. Ramsey is the author of numerous works on the history of immigrant education, including Bilingual Public Schooling in the United States: A History of America’s "Polyglot Boardinghouse". (Palgrave Macmillan).

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