Over the weekend Trump managed to create an international incident by banning travel from 7 predominately Muslim countries with the stroke of a pen. His flurry of signing Orders at the start of his term is not unlike what Obama did, and the Orders are largely meant for his base. Many of the Orders lack clarity because they are designed to simply be political gestures not real policy. But the lack of forethought for this Executive Order is quite evident as Trump has rather quickly caused chaos in American airports and created a boon for lawyers across the country as the Order is legally challenged nationwide. The White House claims the basis for this ban is to keep America safe and to protect the security of the country. What makes Trump’s actions shocking to many is the boldness of them but Trump’s claim that immigrants or refugees are a security risk isn’t exactly new. The Canadian government is trying to cash in on the US ban by welcoming the stranded but the country was no more welcoming to immigrants and refugees than the US over the course of its history. Today we are also learning about a terrorist attack in Quebec directed at Muslims. Canadians and Americans have enabled these views to fester and grow for decades. If Americans are upset about it, as they should be, many need to do some soul searching in the mirror before putting all the blame on Trump.
For much of American and Canadian history refugees and immigrants were often blamed for bringing “foreign” and “dangerous” ideologies. In the 19th century Irish Catholics were viewed with suspicion and as a lesser race especially by Protestants. Anarchism and communism were often the boogeymen that were tied to an individual’s country of origin for much of the 20th century. Yiddish speaking Jews, Finns, Ukrainians, Croatians, and Poles were some of the immigrants that were considered as potential security threats to both Canada and the US. Before the UN was created, accepting refugees was done on an ad hoc basis and they were often only accepted if they were believed to be contributing to the economic well being of the country, if not, they were not welcome, humanitarian needs were not a central concern. One of the most well known examples was the case of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. The Americans didn’t want them and neither did Canada leading Canada’s head of immigration Frederick Blair to claim that “None was too many.” Racism and the belief that Jews could be communist troublemakers were behind the actions. Even after the creation of the UN and its 1951 Refugee Convention, acceptance of refugees was often tied to one’s political affiliation as Western states were very selective in trying to accept refugees fleeing communism but not people fleeing right-wing dictatorships. When countries like Canada did accept refugees fleeing right-wing dictatorships, such as the Chilean refugees, they were heavily screened as potential security risks. For instance, screening for them took 4 weeks vs. 3 days for Hungarian refugees fleeing communism in 1956. The connection between immigration and refugees as security threats continuing to grow. 9/11 accelerated this trend as the lines between immigration law and anti-terrorism law became blurred.
Moments in history where immigrants were met with extreme demonstrations of nativism often had other factors at their root, in addition to the racist views of the day. Poor economic conditions, social change, heightened tensions during war or just before war, these were often contributors to nativism during these periods. Americans’ current uneasiness about their economy, tensions with other nations like Russia and China, terrorism, conflict in Syria, these factors I think are behind this recent bout of nativism and were also ones that helped Trump get elected (who also campaigned on this issue of banning people from certain Muslim countries). It has led to Muslims, again, being “othered” and blamed as being risks to the country’s security as they were during the days after 9/11, even though none of the countries currently in the travel ban Order have been responsible for terror attacks on US soil.
The realities of security threats are far more complex than Trump’s administration portrays them. The idea that terrorism is tied to states is a foolishly outdated one. Sure there are states that in the past have indirectly supported terror cells, and some still do, but if that is the rationale, how are Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or others not on the current Order? Of the 9/11 attackers for instance, 15 were Saudis, the others from United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon. None of these are on Trump’s Order. Frankly, state support of terrorism is something even the US is guilty of dating back to the 1980s and Reagan’s term. If we take the administration at their word and accept this isn’t about religion (which is extremely difficult to do because of Trump’s own statements during the election campaign with regard to Muslims) I think we can accept that Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia are not the best examples of stability, democracy and good government (why is a much longer post) but why Iran? This suggests to me the ban was designed to target places where U.S. forces and intelligence may be highly active with Iran thrown in for good measure. The Order may be directed at countries the U.S. is in conflict with or politically opposed to like Iran or is based on the worldview of Trump advisors like Bannon, either way for the administration this Order equals good security policy except – it isn’t. It is irrational to think that all citizens of these states are potential terrorists and that terrorism is imported. Similar to Western nations in the past which painted communism as an imported ideology, terrorism is not something that is always imported. One of the most frequent terrorist acts being committed in the US are mass shootings and these are often committed by Americans on Americans and sometimes they were committed by those that were self-radicalized, by whatever ideology or form of extremism. Has the administration forgotten about the Boston bombings and other similar attacks? The internal conditions and contradictions of a nation are more to blame for unrest than outsiders coming in to do people harm. It is a mistake to paint 9/11 as the archetype for a terrorist attack, which is what Trump is doing by constantly invoking it, and treating it as such is a recipe for missing future attacks. This ban is really pointless and can easily be circumvented anyway (doesn’t ban entry of dual nationals or nationals from EU, which saw increases in attacks in the last few years). Trump should be leaving security threat assessment to the people in intelligence who know it best and not make their job harder which he has certainly done. Will Trump’s Order increase terrorist recruiting? Quite possibly, but my assessment is that the greater problem will be that it will sow more division and discord within America and with its allies. It may also backfire as some who elected Trump have second thoughts when they see his policies possibly coming to life causing problems for Republican House members in the next round of elections. Still, the existing and deepening divisions in the country are the real security risk that Democrats and Republicans are unable or incapable of grasping. More division will surely bring a smile to America’s opponents, watching from afar as the country continues to tear itself to pieces.