By: Avi Strauss  | 

The Dark Irony of the Immigration Protests

Over the past week, I’ve had several conversations with friends and fellow students about President Trump’s executive order on immigration. Virtually all of those conversations involved questioning the proper “Jewish” response to the order in particular and issue of Syrian refugees as a whole. All questioned the un-Americanism of not accepting refugees--with millions suffering in Syria and the Middle East, how could we as a nation of immigrants turn them away? America is a nation built by immigrants, therefore it is our duty to grant asylum to those in need. To stand by idly and neglect the millions displaced and fleeing destruction, would be to forfeit our moral high ground, they exclaimed.

Certainly, as a human being (before we even get to the question of a Jewish response), we ought to have sympathy for our fellow man suffering terrible indignities, tragedies and worse. Moreover, my coming analysis is in no way meant to indicate support for Trump’s decision or his administration as a whole. And yet, my political science and debate experience just couldn’t resist questioning the intensity of the outrage at this point during the 6-year old Syrian conflict:

“Well, what do you think is the proper number of refugees we should accept? What percentage of the American population should we match when considering the acceptance of refugees?”

Needless to say, most people were thrown off by this reversal. No longer did I want the discussion to be about the minimum, i.e. Trump’s temporary “zero,” but rather actually focus on what the proper response to a mass refugee crisis, in their eyes, should look like.

Not once did I get anything remotely resembling a number. Realizing the risks involved in choosing a number of refugees out of thin air, every single person moved to dodge and evade. But I knew what logical corner I was pushing them towards.

“You don’t need a specific number. Just ballpark it. How many tens of thousands? Compare it to the amount President Obama accepted per year.”

Still, I could not get a response. And that’s because much of the irony of their current interest in the plight of the refugees had been exposed, as had a huge motivating factor in the nationwide protests. A different person occupies the Oval Office.

For years under the Obama administration, America wrung its hands over the entire Syrian conflict and refugee issues, wavering between periods of downright apathy to moments of stern condemnations coupled with a small wave of front page articles discussing milestone death tolls and refugee counts.

“100,000 dead as Syrian Conflict Rages On.” “250,000 dead as Obama Administration Weighs Arming Moderate Rebels” “Over 10 Million Syrians Displaced During Conflict.”  

These things all occurred during a tepid, five and a half-years of “smart power,” some of which I commented on last year, while suggesting certain policies to alleviate the worst of the refugee crisis. Yet how many refugees did America take in while the Middle East underwent tremendous instability?

Less than 85,000 total in fiscal year 2016, of whom only 38,901 (46%) were Muslim. But don’t mistake that year of benevolence as standard. In the years prior to 2016, since the Arab Spring in 2009, America averaged less than 70,000 refugees total per year, of whom only around ⅓ were Muslim (around 20,000 per year on average), according to the Pew Research Center.

Where were the protests? Where was the righteous indignation? Overnight, the decision to temporarily ban refugees from 7 of the 50 Muslim-majority nations in the world earned the scorn of self-styled humanitarians across the country, but when we were accepting just a token amount of refugees from around the entire planet during the Obama years, we heard the sounds of silence.

How many refugees did Sweden accept, by comparison? In around a year’s time, during the initial height of the immigration crisis, Sweden welcomed 190,000 refugees, or the equivalent of 2 percent of its entire population.

In the year 2015 alone, Germany accepted 1,000,000 refugees, according to the Washington Post. That’s equivalent to 1.25% of its population. Certainly the overall count in the years before and after far exceeds that number, with Germany taking the leading international role beyond the Middle East for refugee acceptance.

Last I checked, Sweden and Germany don’t self-identify as “nations of immigrants,” sporting population demographics that include 85% and 80% natural-born populations, respectively (with a large total of their foreign-born populations from neighboring European countries). These nations don’t have historical traditions for welcoming the world’s “poor, huddled masses,” yet they managed to summon the backbone necessary to welcome massive influxes of refugees through the duration of the immigration crisis.

America accepted an embarrassing proportion by comparison-- a mere 0.17% over an 8-year period, while President Obama was in office.  For the wealthiest nation in the world that simultaneously billed itself as the beacon of morality, this was downright pathetic.

Granted, both Sweden and Germany are now grappling over what to do with such a large influx of foreign-born migrants and refugees, but they nonetheless confronted the crisis and welcomed as many refugees as possible.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration stood silent--as did our newly-minted indignant protestors. These outraged demonstrators  seem to believe a temporary ban on refugees, put in place on January 28, 2017, is the only trigger capable of galvanizing an organized response.  “Never Again” lay a dormant force until our (mostly) peaceful transition of power made it politically expedient to revive. Mind you, the Middle East is only one of MANY war-torn, refugee-filled regions in the world, most of which were not subject to any hold on refugees, as per the executive order. All these places deserve our protests alongside political and humanitarian asylum.

It seems to me that the protestors are far more animated by their disgust for our current president than they are the plight of millions of displaced and suffering Syrians. They’re playing politics with a humanitarian disaster.

To be sure, I think there is a somewhat reasonable response to my initial query: “well, I’m not sure what the total number of refugees we should accept is, but we can all acknowledge that the difference between accepting none and accepting one is much greater than the difference between accepting one refugee and accepting two.” It’s a statement of values to endeavor to take in refugees. But, seeing as the executive order only limited refugees from a specific area, for a temporary period, I’d still challenge that there is a huge strain of partisanship coloring the protestors current worldviews.

Ideally, we would be able to give shelter and grant asylum to all those across the world who lack safe haven and basic humanitarian needs in their original homes, where they’d probably stay if they could. Further, I’d agree that the ban was carried out horrifically, resulting in many visa and green-card holders being denied rightful entry into the United States. I may even concede that the ban on refugee arrivals and travelers from those 7 Muslim majority countries poses more of a threat to “America” as we know it than the potential for terrorists to slip through our vetting system. But these are just ancillary points--the reasons we summon to rationalize and justify our basest political reflexes.

I’ll give credit where it's due--the passion and fervor of the protestors has been a spectacle to behold--a true demonstration of the power of free speech and assembly. But at the same time I wonder if any of these suddenly enlightened activists are aware of the apparent incongruity in their current protests vs. years of silence. Refugees were starving and drowning and dying by the thousands and millions under the previous administration, which only managed to bring to America a few thousand of those suffering most during an 8-year span. Protestors, where were you then?