America’s Troubled, Contradictory Refugee Legacy

Uncategorized February 27, 2017 0

Crewmen of the amphibious cargo ship USS ‘Durham’ take Vietnamese refugees aboard a small craft in the South China Sea, April 1975. U.S. Navy photo...
Crewmen of the amphibious cargo ship USS ‘Durham’ take Vietnamese refugees aboard a small craft in the South China Sea, April 1975. U.S. Navy photo

Even when American leaders have welcomed those fleeing war, the public seldom has


The White House is in the process of fighting the American judicial branch to implement a travel ban it insists is vital to American security. An executive order President Donald Trump signed on Jan. 27, 2017 sought to suspend all refugee admissions for 120 days as well as block all entry to citizens from seven Muslim majority countries for 90 days.

Under the plan, the maximum number of refugees allowed into the United States in the 2017 fiscal year will likely be slashed by over half — from 110,000 to 50,000. Admission of Syrian refugees will be suspended indefinitely. The order comes as the world is facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

In response to the executive order, thousands of people around the United States protested at airports. Ultimately, immigration lawyers and refugee advocates sued the government for a freeze on the White House’s ban.

In addition to the Constitution and modern U.S. law, they cited America’s rich history of welcoming refugees. Indeed, refugees have been a part of America ever since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. People have fled war and persecution to start new lives in America for generations.

But over the course of the past century, they’ve rarely been welcomed warmly. Even when the U.S. government has opened the door to those fleeing violence, the first instinct of many Americans has been to slam it back shut and lock it.

Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. U.S. Holocaust Museum photo

In the years leading up to World War II, the rise of fascist governments in Europe led to an exodus. The totalitarian Nazi government — and its virulent anti-Semitism in particular — drove many citizens to flee for their lives. But Americans by and large opposed allowing refugees escaping from these dictatorships to resettle in the United States.

In 1938, polling firm Roper found that 67 percent of Americans opposed “German, Austrian and other political refugees” coming to the United States, versus 18 percent who believed Americans should let them in and just five percent who said it should be encouraged.

In 1939, the German ocean liner MS St. Louis embarked on the infamous “voyage of the damned” during which the vessel’s captain, Gustav Schröder, tried to find homes abroad for more than 900 German Jews turned refugees. The ship was denied entry to Cuba, the United States and Canada.

Many Americans argued that the refugees could be Nazi or communist infiltrators. Eventually, various European countries agreed to take them in. But later that year, Germany began its conquest of Europe and invaded many of those same countries. Historians estimate that around a quarter of those on the voyage died in the Holocaust.

World War II was the most destructive conflict in human history. When the conflict ended, millions of people had been displaced in the world’s worst refugee crisis. Repatriating and resettling them was a massive challenge.

By 1948, three years after the war’s end, there were still an estimated 800,000 “displaced persons” in Europe alone.

Some looked to America, the promised land of opportunity, for hope. Some U.S. governors whose states had declining populations said there was room for refugees — but public opinion was less generous. A 1948 Gallup poll shows that 57 percent Americans disapproved of any plans to resettle displaced Europeans in their states.

Even so, in 1948 Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act, which authorized the entry of 200,000 — later raised to 415,000. By the end of 1952, just over 400,000 people had arrived under the law. Most came from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union and the communist governments it propped up in Eastern Europe were repressive and brutal. The communists purged and imprisoned political dissidents en masse. When the Red Army brutally crushed the Hungarian uprising of 1956, nearly 200,000 Hungarians fled to Austria and Yugoslavia.

When Gallup questioned Americans about a 1958 proposal to resettle 65,000 Hungarian refugees in America, it found that 55 percent of Americans disapproved and just about 33 percent supported it. Ultimately, Congress passed the Hungarian Refugee Act of 1958, admitting 30,752 Hungarians.

Some Americans once again argued that communist infiltrators could be among the refugees. In fact, most had suffered the worst excesses of communist rule and were ardent anti-communists.

In some cases, their children went on to serve in the military and U.S. intelligence agencies as linguists and spies, using their mastery of their parents’ languages and knowledge of the culture to America’s advantage

Vladimir Rudolph-Shabinsky, who defected in 1947 and was the first employee of Radio Liberty once rhetorically asked:

“If the defector wasn’t important, why have the Soviets so persistently and severely struggled for so many years to prevent them from getting out and then getting those who did, back inside?”

The U.S. government also identified many of those who did have communist backgrounds as valuable assets. Defectors were highly prized as sources of intel and knowledge, and Washington often called upon them to help fight propaganda and craft counter-messaging. However, in the waning days of the Cold War, the CIA concluded that the United States had not fully utilized other refugees and failed to recognize the potential value they could’ve had as defectors.

“The staff found that the bulk of those people one would normally classify as ‘defectors’ have tended to fall outside of this definition, despite the fact that many of them are often privy to important and otherwise unavailable information that would be useful in the public domain for the analysis of Soviet and East European affairs,” a now declassified agency report noted.

“Even when this type of defector is eager to contribute his or her knowledge to the analytical community, the staff found that few have been afforded that opportunity. While denying ourselves potentially useful information, we are also compounding an already difficult process of adaptation and integration into this society.”

South Vietnamese refugees arrive on a U.S. Navy vessel during Operation Frequent Wind. U.S. Marine Corps photo

The next major surge of refugees came after the collapse of South Vietnam. America had fought a long, failed war that cost the lives of 58,315 Americans and as many as 1,353,000 people in total.

As Saigon fell in April 1975, the U.S. military evacuated all Americans from the city as well as thousands of Vietnamese. Many of these refugees had fought alongside the U.S. military or had worked for American agencies. They’d trusted their American friends and allies, and risked death or imprisonment under communist rule. As a result, it was often American veterans and diplomats who were among their most vocal proponents.

Vietnamese military helicopters loaded down with escaping troops and their families flew out to the sea to reach American ships. Sailors unloaded the refugees and dumped the helicopters into the water to make room for more.

The United States ultimately helped 130,000 people escape from Southeast Asia— including Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians — fleeing ascendant communist governments. Most were housed in American military installation — notably Camp Pendleton — until they could be resettled in communities around the country.

Americans at the time were deeply divided on whether these refugees should be allowed to live in the United States. In a May 1975 Harris poll, for example, 37 percent were in favor, 49 percent opposed and 14 percent were undecided.

A U.S. Marine at Camp Pendleton walks with a young Vietnamese boy. U.S. Marine Corps photo

For many, the refugees were an unwelcome reminder of an unpopular war many Americans simply wanted to forget. Some argued that they should stay in Asia and be with people of a more similar culture. Others asserted that they were a “Trojan horse” — communist infiltrators who would wage a Vietcong style insurgency on American soil and kill U.S. citizens.

Continued violence in Southeast Asia, as well as thousands of people hoping to escape oppressive rule sent people fleeing into the Pacific. Untold numbers of the so called “boat people” died at sea. U.S. Marine veteran turned photojournalist Eddie Adams documented the crisis. In particular, he shot a series of photos of 48 Vietnamese refugees who managed to sail to Thailand in a 30-foot boat — only for Thai marines to tow them back into the ocean.

The photographs in part moved then President Jimmy Carter to double the number of Southeast Asian refugees the United States had previously agreed to accept to 14,000 a month. The move wasn’t popular. A CBS News/New York Times poll the following month found 62 percent opposed Carter’s decision.

When the Shah of Iran was overthrown in an Islamist revolution in 1979, many Iranian business people and college students in the United States requested asylum and many of their families tried to join them. Carter temporarily froze travel from Iran.

Despite the refugee wariness, the Senate unanimously adopted legislation by a unanimous voted in late 1979 to create a process for vetting and admitting large numbers of refugees to help address the global crisis. Carter signed the Refugee Act into law in early 1980. The act officially established Federal Refugee Resettlement Program which specially trained personnel to interview and process applicants.

America’s Tragic ‘Last Days in Vietnam’

That year, America dealt with its own Maritime migration. The Cuban government allowed tens of thousands of Cubans to leave the island in what come to be known as the Mariel boatlift. By the time the boatlift ended in late October that year, about 125,000 Cubans had arrived in southern Florida. Most were granted asylum.

A June 1980 CBS/New York Times poll reported that 71 percent of respondents said they disapproved allowing Cubans to settle in America. It became particularly unpopular as Florida media began to report that criminals and mental patients were among the refugees.

While most were political exiles, there is some evidence Cuban government did intentionally pull some career criminals from prisons as well as the mentally ill to be rid of them. The U.S. government ultimately sent around 2.2 percent of them back, but most integrated well.

Carter lost his bid for re-election. But his successor Ronald Reagan, though different in approach, was also broadly in support of the notion that the United States should continue to admit refugees. People were still arriving fleeing Iran, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and Central America.

“Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands,” Reagan said in a statement about immigrants and refugees in July 1981.

“We shall continue America’s tradition as a land that welcomes peoples from other countries. We shall also, with other countries, continue to share in the responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression.”

Reagan launched the Private Sector Initiative in 1986. He explained in his announcement of the program that refugees under the PSI would be admitted “upon the availability of private sector funding sufficient to cover the essential and reasonable costs of such admissions.”

Private sponsoring organizations would agree to help provide basic needs for refugees until individuals became self-sufficient or permanent residents. American families and local community members pitched in. The number of volunteer sponsors and the amount of cash raised determined how many refugees would be admitted. The program helped thousands of Cubans, Soviet Jews, Southeast Asian refugees and Iranian exiles.

A Marine hands out toothpaste and sanitary supplies to Vietnamese refugees at Camp Pendleton. U.S. Marine Corps photo

Not all Americans shared Reagan’s hopeful outlook. In 1981, anti-refugee sentiment came to a head as tensions escalated in Galveston Bay between Vietnamese fisherman and some longtime locals.

Many Vietnamese refugees resettled along the Gulf Coast and started fishing and shrimping businesses. The swampy, humid coast reminded many of them of home. Some had been boat people rescued at sea. Several were veterans of the Vietnamese navy who’d once worked with American troops combing the Mekong Delta and coastal waters for Vietcong smugglers.

But not all locals welcomed the former allies. There were frequent brawls and occasional knife fights. Many white fishermen didn’t welcome the competition. In the town of Seadrift, when white fisherman Billy Joe Aplin was shot and killed, police charged two Vietnamese fishermen for the murder. They were ultimately acquitted.

In response, angry locals burned several Vietnamese boats. Eventually, an angry fisherman by the name of Eugene Fisher, a Vietnam veteran with several Purple Hearts, invited the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to intervene.

Klan Grand Dragon Louis Beam — himself a former helicopter door gunner — held a rally. “It’s going to be a hell of a lot more violent than it was in Korea or Vietnam,” he told the crowd.

Beam pledged to train white fishermen in paramilitary tactics. “When you come out of there, you’ll be ready for the Vietnamese,” he told them.

Beam finished off the speech with a fiery spectacle — he burned a boat with the words “USS Vietcong” painted on its hull. The irony that the Vietcong had ruined the lives of most of the Vietnamese fisherman was evidently lost on the crowd.

In the following weeks the Klan burned crosses in front of Vietnamese homes and destroyed more boats. Anonymous threats and business cards were sent to a white family that allowed a Vietnamese fisherman to dock at their wharf.

On March 15, 1981, a group of white fishermen and 15 Klan members wearing a mix of military fatigues and white robes sailed into the bay. Armed with semiautomatic rifles and shotguns they hung a human effigy on the ship’s rigging and patrolled the waters.

The boat pulled up to the home of Nguyen Van Nam, president of the Vietnamese Fishermen’s Association and a former colonel in the South Vietnamese Army.

The Vietnamese sailors sued the Klan. The campaign didn’t stop until the Southern Poverty Law Center sent lawyers to aid the Vietnamese fisherman.

In response to the lawsuit, a spokesman for Fisher’s group was quoted in The New York Times asserting Vietnamese fisherman had criminally endeavored to “intimidate, harass and obstruct us from fishing in Galveston Bay,” and further asserted that they had “reason to believe North Vietnamese Communists are infiltrating the ranks of the Vietnamese.”

On July 15, 1981 a federal court issued an injunction that ordered the Klan to shut down paramilitary training camps and put an end to the confrontation for good. Today, relations between Vietnamese and white fisherman are much better and they regularly do business together.

During his 1989 farewell address Reagan spoke proudly of America’s efforts to welcome refugees. Specifically he recalled a letter written by an American sailor.

“As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up and called out to him. He yelled, ‘Hello, American sailor — Hello, Freedom Man,’” Reagan recounted.

“A small moment with a big meaning, a moment the sailor, who wrote it in a letter, couldn’t get out of his mind. And, when I saw it, neither could I … Because that’s what it was to be an American in the 1980s.”

Haitian refugees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Photo via University of Minnesota

During the 1990s the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union came to an end as the latter collapsed. But the world was not at peace. Civil wars and terrorism — the long-term consequences of both Western and communist Cold War schemes — tore several countries apart.

After the 1991 Gulf War many Iraqi Kurds sought new lives in America, particularly in Nashville, Tennessee. Conflicts in Africa sent thousands fleeing the warlords who were beginning to carve up their homelands. There were influxes from Sudan, Somalia and the Congo.

There was also new wave of Cubans fleeing their home to the U.S. occurred in 1994, joined this time by several thousand Haitians fleeing their own country’s increasingly violent political turmoil and grinding poverty. The American public reacted negatively again. Very negatively.

A September 1994 CBS/New York Times poll found widespread disapproval. The poll found that 80 percent against letting in Cubans versus 15 percent in favor. For Haitians it was 77 percent against and 19 percent in favor.

The Clinton administration’s response to the Caribbean crisis was very different from Carter’s response the Mariel boatlift. The U.S. Coast Guard and Navy intercepted more than 30,000 Cubans and 20,000 Haitians at sea and interned them at the Guantanamo Bay. Eventually the U.S. admitted most of the Cubans, but only about half the Haitians.

Throughout the ’90s violence in the Balkans also generated a refugee crisis in Europe. The 1998 Kosovo war resulted in roughly a million Kosovars — half the territory’s population — becoming refugees in neighboring countries or internally displaced. In April 1999, the U.S. agreed to accept up to 20,000 Kosovar refugees as part of a multinational response to the crisis.

Public opinion was once again divided, but this time more favorable toward taking the refugees. A CBS/New York Times poll that month found 40 percent of Americans thought accepting the refugees was the right thing to do while 31 percent said the U.S. should do less and 19 percent said the U.S. should do more.

In the end, State Department reported that just over 14,000 Kosovars were admitted into the country.

A U.S. Marine speaks with an Iraqi Army officer and an interpreter at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq on Dec. 31, 2014. U.S. Marine Corps photo

Trump’s order to halt the program is not the first time U.S. refugee admissions have been stopped. After 9/11 the U.S. largely suspended refugee resettlement for three months while officials examined security measures.

It was a time when America’s entire security infrastructure was being thoroughly rethought. Ultimately handful of alterations were made, and refugees continued coming.

Today, the refugee admissions process can takes at least 18 months and often more than two years. It includes includes a review of applications by the State Department and other federal agencies, cross checking with foreign intelligence and law enforcement agencies, multiple in-person interviews by specially trained interrogators, health screenings and — for most — cultural orientations.

It’s the hardest way to gain legal entry into the United States. Since the passing of the Refugee Act of 1980, three million refugees have arrived in America.

Of those three million, only a handful have ever been involved in terrorist activity. In December 2016, Ohio State University police killed Somali refugee Abdul Razak Ali Artan during an attack that injured several but resulted only in Artan’s death — making him the first and only refugee to carry out an attack on American soil.

The Boston Marathon bombers, often cited as a counterpoint, were not refugees but rather the children of asylum seekers — which carries a different legal distinction and a different screening process.

Each refugee provides biometric data to the U.S. government during the screening process and there are meticulous records on who they are, where they came from and where they’ve resettled in the United States. In 2016 there were 16,370 Congolese refugees, 12,587 from Syria, 12,347 from Burma, 9,880 Iraqis and 9,020 from Somalia.

In 2016, Muslims made up nearly half of refugee admissions at 46 percent, a slightly higher share than for Christians, who accounted for 44 percent of those admitted. That’s the first time Muslims have been the largest group since 2006, when an influx of Somali refugees entered the United States.

Between the fiscal years 2002 to 2016, the United States admitted 399,677 Christian refugees and 279,339 Muslim refugees — meaning that 46 percent of all refugees who have entered the country during this time have been Christian while about 32 percent have been Muslim.

Over the past decade, the largest group of refugees admitted have been those from Burma at 159,692.

The bloody November 2015 Paris attacks led to a resurgence in anti-refugee sentiment — Muslims especially and Syrian refugees specifically. However, the vast majority of attacks in Europe — including the Paris attack — have been carried out by European nationals that were radicalized online rather than by refugees.

In fact, Syrian refugees have by and large cooperated with authorities and have expressed concerned about Saudi-funded western Islamists that promote an ideology they say they risked their life to escape.

Syrian refugees are an inconvenience for both the Islamic State and the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar Al Assad as they try to craft narratives of themselves as champions and heroes. For Islamic State, which has called upon all Muslims to rally to its cause of apocalyptic jihad, the refugees leaving represent a rejection of their ideology.

Jihadists regularly refer to refugees as cowards and apostates in propaganda, as well as fools — arguing that the West will never truly accept them.

For the Syrian regime and its allies — which have killed more people than any other faction in the conflict — it demonstrates that Assad doesn’t have control or the support of his people.

Assad endorsed Trump’s decision to indefinitely ban all Syrians, saying he didn’t feel the order hurt Syrian interests. He argued that it only affected terrorists — a term he has broadly applied to anyone who opposes him — and asserted he is “concerned with how to keep the Syrian people in Syria so that they don’t leave for the United States.”

When questioned about a recent Human Rights Watch report about thousands of people killed, tortured and raped in regime prisons, Assad replied that it was “fake news.”

Much of what we know about life in Islamic State occupied Iraq and Syria we know from refugees. Much in the way intelligence agencies interviewed Eastern European immigrants and refugees to understand life behind the Iron Curtain, the CIA and military intelligence have actively sought the insights of Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan, as well as looked for defectors from the Assad regime.

However, recently many Syrian regime defectors with intimate knowledge of both their government and the terror networks in their country told The Daily Beast that U.S. officials have never debriefed them. The Obama administration apparently considered it a low priority, and intelligence officials would only talk to defectors when diplomats insisted.

The most recent ban notably barred Iraqi interpreters and military members who worked with the U.S. military. Some of them are currently participating in efforts to fight the Islamic State in Mosul. It has made some Iraqis question the sincerity of their American allies.

James Mattis, the former general who now leads the Pentagon, wasn’t briefed on the order. He’s since ordered the creation of a list of Iraqi interpreters and military personnel that should be exempt from any travel bans.

Recently, the White House rejected a Department of Homeland Security intelligence report that concluded that people from the seven countries named in the travel ban don’t pose a unique threat to American security . White House staff have said the report is “incomplete.”

“The president asked for an intelligence assessment,” a White House official told The Wall Street Journal. “This is not the intelligence assessment the president asked for.”

The White House has argued that it would be safer and more cost effective to set up safe zones for displaced people in Syria rather than allow refugees into the West. But Pentagon planners have estimated such a deployment could require as many as 30,000 troops — compared to the 10,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan — and could cost billions of dollars to maintain.

Mattis voiced skepticism about safe zones and no fly zones when the Obama White House was mulling them over. The retired Marine warned that safe zones are a band aid, not a solution, and that without a long-term goal they weren’t likely to do much good.

The Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C. has been lobbying lawmakers to resurrect portions of Reagan’s refugee policy to allow the private sector to play a greater role in resettlement, and argued that would allow refugees to find jobs, become self sufficient and contribute to the American economy rather than drain from it.

As the world struggles with a humanitarian crisis of historic proportions it’s unclear when it will all end and how — or if — it will be resolved. America would have usually led the way in the face of such a historic crisis. But maybe it never really wanted to.

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