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Immigration Policy’s Uncharted Waters

image of sign that says "Refugees are Human Beings"

Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee was absolutely ebullient and dog-tired on February 10th when I paid a courtesy visit to my former U.S. House of Representatives colleague. He had every right to be emotionally ramped up and physically drained from the non-stop national media attention at his doorstep.

Governor Inslee and his attorney general had just claimed a huge legal victory over a much tweeted and ballyhooed national immigration policy in the early days of the Trump Administration.

On February 9, an appeals court declared in favor of the state of Washington on the suit it had filed blocking the implementation of President Trump’s January 27 executive order. That White House directive called for suspending travel from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and suspending refugee admissions for 120 days.

It had been quite a legal sprint for the state of Washington. Only three days after the Trump executive order was issued, the state sued the administration in federal court claiming irreparable harm from the ban and asking for a temporary nationwide restraining order to block it.

In response to the Federal appeals court decision against him, Trump tweeted: “See you in court, the security of our nation is at stake.”

Yet the courts rejected the travel ban because it targeted predominantly Muslim countries. In short, the Executive Order was a religious ban. Clearly, the courts did not accept President Trump’s rationale claiming the ban was for national security purposes.

Thus began a series of challenges on major policies by states resisting the policies of the new administration. The parade of Oval Office ceremonies of executive orders aimed to overturn key Obama administration initiatives began with a major defeat. More reverses ensued.

As with the flawed travel ban, subsequent directives from the White House have been designed to play to the President’s narrow base. Whether the tweeted subject is Paris, Iran, Mexico, North Korea, Bear Ears Monument or the NFL, the messages appear to incite rather than unite.

The travel ban challenge originated with a state, thereby opening a new arena of confrontation only two weeks after the inauguration. Sanctuary cities have now morphed into sanctuary states. Quick resistance to the deportation of “Dreamers” has put the brakes on the play-to-the-base immigration policies of the Administration. The Paris climate accords are now embraced by cities and states across the country.

New fronts of resistance outside of Congress are opening each day.

Federal courts now allow tweeted messages from the president into evidence to determine critical legal cases. The expanded role of U.S. cities and states, plus the admissibility of social media pronouncements in court proceedings, are helping to push back against an administration bent on disrupting normal procedures, protocols, practices and processes.

Here in Idaho, the dairy industry is up in arms over aggressive immigration enforcement, indicating that it is not only blue states where the voices of resistance may start to be heard on immigration and refugee policies.

The Trump administration – and with it the country – are in uncharted waters. To gauge where we are on a historical timeline, it is useful to review an earlier dark period in our nation’s refugee policies and determine whether we should arrest our nativist and xenophobic tendencies.

In 1939, the St. Louis, a ship that sailed from Germany with approximately 900 Jews escaping the pogroms and violence of the ascending Nazi regime, was bound for Cuba. When it reached Havana, a virulently anti-Semitic government turned it away. Only 22 persons were allowed to stay. The St. Louis then sailed to U.S. shores where the U.S. government similarly caved to anti-Semitic sentiments, fear mongering and unreasonably low quotas for German-Austrian immigrants.

The United States did not allow a single refugee fleeing the Nazi killing machine to disembark, although most aboard had applied for visas. This represented a dark day in American history and for President Franklin Roosevelt. The government forced those refugees to sail back to Europe. Some were eventually exterminated in Nazi concentration camps.

Yesterday’s anti-Semitism – which played out with the St. Louis calamity – is analogous to today’s Islamophobia playing out with the refugee travel ban.

The path to the current pushback against refugees began with conservative dog whistles and below-the-radar social media alarmism. The nationalistic emotional appeals masquerading as sound public policy are a challenge to all U.S. citizens.

The immigration restrictions included in September’s revised travel ban are drastic. This policy plays right into the hands of those who promote Islamophobia and will prevail in spite of government studies that demonstrate the positive economic effects refugees bring to the United States.

It is our duty to ask where Congressional oversight is during this critical time in our history. Why do we not have the benefit of honest hearings and objective thinking? Is “the base” so important to the lifeblood of one political party or another that we would sacrifice our principles for majority control?

It took the state of Washington exactly three days to determine where it stood on behalf of its 7.3 million citizens. In the span of three days an ill-conceived travel ban that hides behind a national security imperative rather than a moral imperative was challenged successfully in court.  The false mask of “national security” was ripped off the hastily drafted Executive Order, and the country can now openly debate a policy that is more interested in dividing us than uniting us.

If we reflect upon the disgrace of our actions when the St. Louis touched upon our shores in 1939, maybe we can put today’s intolerance in a proper context as yesterday’s anti-Semitism dressed up as public policy.

Photo of Larry LaRocco

Larry LaRocco

Larry LaRocco represented the First District of Idaho in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1991 to 1995.  He served as North Idaho Field Representative for the late Senator Frank Church from 1975 to 1981.