Archive for the ‘Humanitarianism’ Category

Trump, Refugees, and Humanitarianism

January 27, 2017
DM-ST-86-07543

Vietnamese refugee couple gets married at Camp Pendleton refugee camp. National Archives and Records Administration: Record Group 330: Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1921 – 2008, 5/1/75

Since the end of World War II, U.S. presidents from both major political parties have temporarily modified immigration laws to allow refugees fleeing humanitarian crises entry into the country. In 1956, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower increased the number of visas available to Hungarian refugees fleeing Soviet persecution. Standing at the base of the Statue of Liberty in October 1965, Democrat Lyndon Johnson declared that U.S. authorities would admit any Cuban who reached American shores seeking asylum from the Castro regime. Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter both signed legislation to admit Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees fleeing postwar troubles in Indochina and residual conflicts following the Vietnam War. In all these cases, the presidents invoked America’s humanitarian impulse, arguing that the willingness to take in exiles who had escaped political persecution, war, famine, or other humanitarian crises was part of the American spirit.

Yesterday the Department of Homeland Security halted staff interviews with refugees in anticipation of Donald Trump’s signing of an executive order banning refugees from entry into the U.S. and suspending visas for Syrians and citizens of other Middle Eastern and North African countries. Trump’s approach to refugees departs from the bipartisan consensus that had preceded him regarding humanitarianism and refugees. It is an example of why the Trump ascendancy is such a jarring moment. It’s not because we’re transitioning from one political party’s control of the presidency to another’s. It’s because we are watching a shift away from the worldview that Republican and Democratic presidents generally have shared for the past seventy years.

Trump has argued that refugees from the Middle East pose a national security threat because they come from a largely Muslim region. During the Cold War, Hungarian, Cuban, and Indochinese refugees fled to the U.S. from Communist countries at a time when Americans viewed Communism as the primary global threat. American citizens have not always supported refugee assistance legislation. In 1975, some Americans opposed the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees because they worried about competition for jobs and did not want the reminder of a shocking war. Racism was just below the surface of some of the opposition. Yet President Ford implored Americans to have compassion for Vietnamese refugees and support resettlement efforts. The U.S. had “always been a humanitarian nation,” Ford asserted during a press conference regarding Vietnamese refugees. Taking them in was “a step consistent with our tradition of providing refuge for the homeless, and help for the helpless,” Ford declared.[1]

None of Trump’s predecessors acted solely out of altruism when responding to refugee crises. Politics and international relations influenced their policymaking. But by appealing to the notion that helping those in need is part of the American character, presidents such as Ford and others offered a moral standard that Americans could look to even if actions or policies did not always live up to it. Confucius argued that virtue is the most important characteristic in a leader, and that the best leaders inspire their subjects to strive for higher standards of behavior. Donald Trump’s callous response to the current refugee crisis suggests that he is not interested in this kind of leadership.

[1] Heather Stur, “Hiding Behind the Humanitarian Label: Refugees, Repatriates, and the Rebuilding of America’s Benevolent Image After the Vietnam War,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 39, No. 2, April 2015, pp. 223-244.


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