(I’m considering doing a weekly bit where I offer a little commentary on contemporary goings-on or pieces of web conversation. Since this is the first stab at it, I don’t have the gall to add the word “weekly” into the title. I might next week.)
The past couple of weeks in this land have been marked by the political turmoil of President Trump’s executive order concerning refugees and immigrants from a handful of countries, and the beginnings of the court processes testing that order.
Generally, I think there’s room to improve just about everything that everybody does, and so it not possible to assert that the status quo regarding refugee vetting is already watertight. Immigration policy is remarkably complex, and the ideological divide is just the tip of the iceberg. Some of the issue is how well we staff the agencies that process the applicants, and how efficient the bureaucracy runs. However, I’ve heard nothing in the narratives of how that process works that makes me afraid of the small number of refugees we’ve allowed in the country. Policy-wise, I’d say lets look for ways to improve the process (including speeding it up!), and continue to make it secure. However, from the outside, I think it’s duplicitous to claim that this moment is a reversal of a previously soft process for refugees. The process is already heavily weighted towards security and against risk.
More problematic seems to be that the main defense of the ban is that it really isn’t all that different from things we’ve already done. That seems to me to be the tone of the response of David French from the National Review, for instance, which is a viewpoint out of line with my own that is worth your consideration. French’s article has three main points. One of which (the second) suggests that opponents were overreacting to a misreading of the order in one regard (whether the restrictions applied to current green card holders), though French did allow that the point was open for criticism if the popular reading was in fact the intention (which it seems it was.). The other two points, though, seem to me to argue that people were overreacting to Trump’s order because it did not in fact amount to much of a departure from normal United States policy.
That seems a curious point to me, and seems to miss the key of the whole issue. The fact that Trump’s action was targeted towards a very small slice of immigration governance is precisely what defines the action. It was meant as a piece of rhetoric, a demonstration piece. It was performance politics meant to make the ideological point without creating too many pain points.
That may satisfy Mr. French, but it does little to temper my own ire. I have a problem with it precisely as rhetoric, although the justice concerns would erupt further were this a large scale action. However, it’s the rhetoric of fear that bothers me the most in this case…and it’s even accented somewhat because of the small scale. By acting against a very small number of persons, personally unknown to most Americans citizens, Trump’s action furthers the villainization of “others”, making it difficult for some of our citizenry to really see them as persons. This action was less about stopping a real threat as it was about feeding the perception of a set of threats. The small scale isn’t accidental there…it actually is part of the rhetorical move, as it limits the possibilities of major problems with established allies or the economic impacts of the restrictions. This move doesn’t highlight the “most dangerous” people entering the country, but the most defenseless, the most vulnerable. The fact that the scale is small simply clarifies that this is a rhetorical move. I object not just to the policy, but to the furtherance of xenophobic rhetoric.
On the other side of the coin, I was quite moved by a poem that emerged online in the midst of the refugee debate by Warsaw Shire, who is of Somali descent and low living in England. It is a haunting poem, with sledgehammer images. The poem is entitled, “No One Leaves Home”, and it might be the best thing I’ve read this year. Hear these lines:
“no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land”
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
While I write this, the whole thing is caught up in the courts, so we’ll see soon what becomes of it. I did email my legislators about the executive order, and Senator Alexander responded with an email that I took as quite thoughtful on the matter, which makes me wonder how the tides of opinions they’ve heard from constituents have leaned. You can read his public statement here.