The nation has gone from “we’ll see what happens” to “what do we do now?”
After President Donald Trump signed a ban on all refugee admission, as well as travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries on Friday — leading to the unlawful detention of valid green card holders in U.S. airports over the weekend — it is now clear that the time for this generation and this university to make sacrifices in defense of our values has come.
It is no secret that Trump’s campaign for president received a boost from xenophobic rhetoric and sentiments from the moment he rode down the escalator at Trump Tower in June 2015 and declared that “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Trump did not create prejudice or xenophobia as much as he tapped into fears of immigrants and refugees that have been present since before the country was founded.
Benjamin Franklin said in 1753 that the Germans who had come to America were “generally of the most ignorant stupid sort,” and expressed fears that Germans “will soon outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.”
For much of the 20th century, native-born Americans expressed fears about immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Jews were often accused of being violent anarchists or communists; the Irish and Italians of bringing addiction and crime; Catholics of trying to make America into a theocracy.
Because of this hysteria, the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 placed onerous restrictions on the number of southern and eastern Europeans who could come to the U.S. The law remained on the books for 40 more years.
In retrospect, it’s obvious that these fears were blown completely out of proportion. Yet it was the Johnson-Reed Act that prevented the U.S. from taking in a ship of refugees from Nazi Germany in 1938 — the MS St. Louis — because of the number of Jews on board.
Hundreds of passengers were returned to Europe and were murdered during the Holocaust.
Today’s fears about Muslim or Latino immigrants bringing terrorism and crime are just as wrong-headed — and will have consequences just as tragic.
Undocumented immigrants are half as likely to be incarcerated as native-born Americans, according to a 2010 American Immigration Council study. Participants in Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) have to meet a strict set of requirements, including that they “not pose a threat to national security or public safety.”
Since the Refugee Act of 1980 put systematic procedures for asylum in place, not one single refugee has been implicated in a fatal terrorist attack on U.S. soil, according to a Cato Institute study.
This isn’t to say that there is no radicalism in the nations that fall under Trump’s ban, but making out every refugee and immigrant to be the personification of our worst fears is as unfair as tying every Italian immigrant to the Mafia was.
America’s relationship with xenophobia is only one side of the whole story, too. The other side is best expressed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty — the first sight of America that millions of immigrants had.
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” the poem engraved in bronze says. “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
We are poorer for not having saved the refugees on the MS St. Louis, yet we are richer for having accepted the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s, for having accepted people fleeing from behind the Iron Curtain and for making strides in integrating historically marginalized groups.
That is also the spirit of America. That is the spirit that we as a generation and that we as a Sacramento State community need to embody now more than ever.
In November, CSU Chancellor Timothy White joined the leaders of the University of California and of the California Community Colleges, signing an open letter urging Trump not to discard DACA.
Good. But if DACA is discarded, it is the obligation of the CSU and affiliated institutions, including the police, to protect the undocumented even if it means violating the law.
And more generally, it is time for everyone to reach out to and support the migrants in our own communities, not just with political advocacy or protesting — although that is good — but by building relationships and a culture of encounter with all those marginalized by society.
We don’t know how far President Trump is planning to go, but we must be prepared to defend the equal dignity of every human being — documented and undocumented, natural-born or foreign-born — no matter the cost.
When the history books of the future are written, will we go down with King, Lincoln or the liberators of concentration camps — or will we go down with George Wallace, Charles Lindburgh or those who were too prejudiced or too frightened to stand up for justice when it was most needed?
If we want to keep the lamp shining at the golden door, it’s time to prepare for the darkness.
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