Trump’s Travel Ban: The Question American Leaders have been Avoiding
I wonder if President Obama would have signed into law the Visa Waiver Improvement Program and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act if he had witnessed anything marginally close to the domestic war on terror Americans faced over the past year. To look on the bright side of the capitol rioting and protesting, it has conceded a great deal of hope for immigration activist groups. The passage of the “No Ban Act” deems promising as it will be much harder for the Supreme Court this time around to permit blatant prejudice yielding public policy. I have faith that the officials in our highest court won’t turn a blind eye to flagrant hypocrisy, and also, I think politicians and law enforcement in 2021are running out of fancy, stage-managed language to evade basic civil rights. Since 1882 and the inception of the Chinese Exclusion Act, American leaders seemed to have used up their quota of both blatant and subtle ethnic selection. A very optimistic person might say that xenophobic immigration policy rhetoric is a well that can run dry.
In Culling the Masses: The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas David Scott Fitzgerald and David Cook-Martín unravel in stages the irony of liberal democracy and its strong correlation to racist immigration policies. They also offer many examples of immigration policies in which the language of subtle ethnic selection was infused into immigration policies in the Americas, especially at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1910 Canadians drafted and passed an immigration policy bill that deliberately read that immigration to Canada was restricted to those “ethnically unsuitable to the climate of Canada.” The policy was meant to restrict people specifically from the Caribbean and the official argument was something along the lines of “this is for their own good” because the climate of Canada was not suitable for them. In this historical anecdote, one can see fact and fiction curiously conflated, and this has been the general mode of America’s immigration policy since we started excluding large numbers of people from entrance. American immigration bans in particular have relied on fictional accounts to justify their end goal which is typically highly geopolitical in nature and quite far off from the aim expressed in the language of the ban.
With Trump’s travel ban of 2017 though, we entered into a new and nebulous age of rhetorical manipulation that was even subtler than its predecessors. Trump used persuasive marketing measures in his campaigning and digital presence to get his party to vote on an immigration ban, without actually having to use bigoted slang in the ban’s literature. U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts argued that because the order itself didn’t mention Islam, the president’s remarks about the travel ban, and his express intent in imposing it, could be safely ignored. Roberts ruled this despite Trump’s vow to the American people, during his campaign, to ban Muslims from the country entirely. The process and consequences of the Trump travel ban reveal that our justice system needs to adjust to the modern political bill passing machine and extend the reach of the law to measure the motivations that drive the passage of immigration policy.
But to take the problem with Trump’s travel ban beyond its linguistic complications, and the tragic ramifications it imposed on many Americans, we have to ask the question that really matters, the question that if addressed properly can change America’s immigration system: Why did Trump want to ban immigrants from Muslim-majority countries?
I don’t think Trump was vacuous enough to believe that all those people from Yemen, and Libya, and Syria, and Sudan, and Iraq, and others, were terrorist threats to Americans. I think he feared an American identity crisis rather than a national security crisis. According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. has historically led the world in refugee resettlement. Since 1980, the U.S. has taken in 3 million of the more than 4 million refugees resettled worldwide. But then came the 2015 refugee crisis that came as a global threat to democratic leaders, and so it comes as no large surprise that the decline in refugee resettlement in the U.S. comes as the global refugee population increased by 2.75 million, and reached a record 19.9 million in 2017. If I were in Trump’s position and at the beginning of a presidency I would have feared these statistics too.
Sweden’s approach to immigration and the refugee crisis over the past few years serves as an important parallel to the American immigration predicament. Sweden spent €6 billion or 1.35 percent of its GDP on the 162,877 asylum seekers in 2015 — amounting to 1.6 percent of the population — from predominantly Muslim countries. But perhaps the most compelling resemblance between the two governing bodies, who historically have been among a select few nations to accept the most immigrants per capita, is the rise of right-wing populism that has flooded their political systems since the outset of the 2015 immigration crisis. The Sweden Democrats are a party that shares much in common with the nature of the radical right in America today. Both parties favor free-market principles, economic liberalism, and tax cuts. They also both favor more stringent immigration systems and oppose their countries’ narratives of exceptionalism. In the decades following World War II, Sweden began welcoming immigrants in the spirit of Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Most importantly for the purposes of the point in question, both parties fear systemic collapse from an influx of migrants and hold the fear that large volumes of Muslim immigrants could change the nature of each country for good. This rise in right-wing populism in both countries has been the result in part of an ambiguous cultural identity paired with the threat of a massive flooding of Muslim refugees.
It is my hope that the tragedies of the Trump travel ban have taught American leaders that instead of addressing the refugee crisis and the crisis of cultural assimilation that it naturally entails via an outdated immigration system infamous for using manipulative and oppressive rhetoric, the U.S. needs to come up with a new system to address the issue of political refugees. It wasn’t so much Trump’s racist rhetoric that has “stained” our country, as Biden remarked upon announcing that he had lifted the ban, but rather the willingness of American leaders to fictionalize reality, going so far as to fictionalize an impending threat of terrorism, instead of facing the more real threat of cultural assimilation. We know that American democracy was built to legally support people of all backgrounds and faiths. Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the Qu’ran and studied Islam at length As he wrote in surviving fragments of his autobiography, he intended his “Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom” to protect “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.” In addressing the refugee crisis head-on, American leaders will be forced to face questions of our national identity and in doing so ought to reaffirm the ideals our founding fathers maintained on inclusivity.