One of those moments: Trump, immigration and Islam during the 2016 election


CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 06: Republican presidential candidates (L-R) New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Carson, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and John Kasich take the stage for the first prime-time presidential debate hosted by FOX News and Facebook at the Quicken Loans Arena August 6, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. The top-ten GOP candidates were selected to participate in the debate based on their rank in an average of the five most recent national political polls. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Republican candidates for president on a Cleveland, Ohio stage before the first prime-time debate last August.

By Tendayi Bloom

This is a blog post that I drafted a couple of months ago and it was then shelved. I come back to it as Donald Trump won the Republican primary in Nevada, with 45.9 per cent of the vote, after winning in New Hampshire with 35.3 per cent of the Republican vote, and coming second in Iowa, in a much more even race. While it is perhaps trite to single out Trump when similar problematic sentiments are found more widely, the extreme nature of Trump’s comments (he recently suggested bringing back waterboarding and ‘a hell of a lot worse’) and that they represent a more general shift in tone is why I’m posting this piece.

The recent Trumpisms relating to Latinos, immigration, and Islam have been referred to by many as hate speech. They have received condemnation in America, including from within the Republican party, caused a stir in the beauty pageant community (update), and even inspired a popular petition in the United Kingdom to ban him from visiting the country — to which the UK parliament has now responded.

Despite this, Donald Trump’s extreme views seem to be chiming with a sizeable proportion of the Republican electorate in the United States. And while opinion varies and changes as to whether Trump stands a credible chance of Republican nomination (some, like Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post say absolutely, while others, like Jonathan Bernstein of Bloomberg, using the same pollster data and Princeton analysis, say more likely not), his often baseless statements are receiving substantial media coverage. The climate created is already changing policy, such as last year’s controversial changes to the US visa waiver program, with wide-ranging effects both for U.S. citizens and for America’s position in the world.

I study migration and am worried by the apparent legitimacy that is being given to misinformation in discourse on migration and on Islam in American and European political discourse. Moreover, the increasing individual instances of Islamophobia occurring at a societal level, make this look worryingly like one of those moments — a moment when those of us who would rather sit quietly and study what happens need to take a stand, however small, to avoid being the silent majority that children will study in history class.

Trump’s attitude to immigration is no surprise. Trumpist language on immigration was already evident in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve (in which he also sets out his ambition to run for president), but I’ll focus here on his current official position. A quick search shows 18 references to illegality and 8 to criminality in his position on immigration. Where he mentions labor migration, it is only in reference to negative impacts on American jobs. Refugees are referred to in two ways: either as bolstering what he perceives as an overwhelming number of low-skilled immigrants, or as absorbing money that should instead be spent on rehoming American orphans.

And it is in this context, and in response to the Paris attacks, that in December 2015 Trump went further, calling for a moratorium on Muslim immigration to the US, including asylum. It was a statement that many thought would be a step too far for the electorate. They were wrong.

I only have 1,500 words, so I’ll briefly present some of the things that I think need to be spelled out.

First, refugees don’t take money away from orphans. As in most democracies, the ones who make decisions about social spending in the U.S. are politicians and bureaucrats (see recent useful discussion in the UK context from Katherine Tonkiss). Sure, Trump is right to highlight the needs of American orphans. In 2013, the Christian Post reported on what they called the ‘Orphan Crisis In America’, and a 2010 report from child welfare group, ‘Lifting the Veil’ traced persistent poor outcomes for children who go through the American foster care system. There is criticism for the American approach of transitioning from institutional residential homes towards foster care and there is longstanding debate about how America spends its social care budget. But none of this is relevant to the discussion about refugees because support for one vulnerable group does not preclude support for another.

It is absurd to blame government spending choices on the group least able to influence them — those without a vote and without political voice. Refugees are fleeing war, persecution and insufferable conditions.

The decisions about spending on American orphans are not weighed only against spending on refugees, but against all spending decisions, from the purchase of military hardware to the salaries of White House aides.

Next, it is important to recognise that the American refugee system is pretty unusual, focused largely around resettlement with less emphasis on in-country applications for asylum. Resettlement was created to ensure protection of the most vulnerable — those unable to move. And while fewer than 1% of refugees are resettled globally, over half of those resettled go to the United States. That means that, unlike many countries, the U.S. mostly chooses which refugees to admit before they arrive (for context, a UNHCR progress report from last summer counted 27 countries with formal resettlement programmes, and Canada’s program made the international press late last year when the country’s Prime Minister welcomed resettled refugees at the airport).

What that means is, unlike most other countries, the U.S. is able to cherry-pick most of its refugees pre-arrival — and it does so. Applicants go through a process of background checks and examination that can take years, as has been showcased by a recent series by Humans of New York and by analyses in the press.

If anyone is to be feared, then, it’s not resettled refugees (nor in-country asylum applicants, who also go through years of checks). And while it’s great that America resettles refugees, all of whom need protection, rather than railing against their admission, it’s maybe worth pondering the humanitarian implications of protecting only those able to go through lengthy pre-settlement processes.


Children at a rally in New York.

Third, bullying Muslims is not only nasty, it detracts from dealing with real threats to America — and to everyone else. It just makes no sense to set up the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, spread as broadly as the world’s 2.2 billion Christians, as any kind of coherent enemy or ally in anything.

Fear about Islam and Muslims among some in North America and Europe is a dangerous red herring. Engendering pointless animosity towards both neighbours and distant strangers makes manipulative violent groups that are really very small and have little support seem bigger than they are. And at the same time, it erodes hard-won fundamental freedoms and human rights protections of which those in the U.S. are, quite rightly, proud.

Wasting time bullying Muslims is, then, counterproductive. It detracts energy and focus from global collaborative efforts to stop the violent extremism that is being experienced the world over. Muslims fleeing that very violence in Syria, like Christians, Yazidis and anyone else, are looking for stability, safety and protection. If they are keen to reach America presumably it’s because they think that they will be able to build their families here and contribute to their new communities.

American rhetoric once portrayed refugees from the Soviet Bloc as proof that Communism was failing. It saw welcoming those refugees as a way to demonstrate the weakness of the other’s ideology. Whatever the political symbolism, a moratorium on Muslim immigration just seems to miss the point.

Maybe it helps to put this in some sort of historical context.

Gallup recently asked around 1,000 Americans how effective they thought some policies currently on the table would be against terrorism. 28% saw a benefit in imposing a religious test barring Muslim immigrants. Coming in at numbers 9 and 10 were suggestions to prevent any Muslim from entering the U.S. (38%) and requiring Muslims, including those who are U.S. citizens, to carry special ID (32%). Another poll, apparently aiming to show another perspective, from NBC/Wall Street Journal found a little more disagreement with a policy banning Muslims entering the U.S., albeit only at 57%.

I’m not a fan of polls and seeing the nonsensical use that polling results have been put to in various countries recently (e.g.1, e.g.2 – see also Nate Silver’s analysis), I’m even more hesitant to take the responses of 1,000 people to a peculiarly worded question at face value. However, taken alongside personal accounts by American and European Muslims about increased discrimination and a sense of insecurity, these kinds of results are chilling. When a well-respected polling agency finds that around a third of Americans polled might support policy suggestions that sound like they come right out of Nazi Germany, it does suggest that this is one of those moments.

Mind you, this isn’t new, and the fear of refugees isn’t peculiar to contemporary conflicts. In November, Gallup and the Pew Research Center both published pieces about the historic American record of popular unwelcome. Looking at polls relating to seven major refugee movements since the 1930s, support for Syrian arrivals in November 2015 (37%) was pretty high — second only to support for Kosovars in 1999 (66%).

Maybe this is progress. It certainly indicates that fears about Syrian refugees today are about more than their religion, however it may seem right now. It’s because they are refugees. And they’ll look very different some years down the line. Only 26% supported taking children from Germany in 1939 and in 1946 only 16% of those polled supported President Truman’s suggestion to allow more refugees to come to the U.S. from Europe.

All that said, maybe it’s a good thing that immigration is solidly on the table, no holds barred?

Writing in the New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh has suggested that Trump’s outspokenness on immigration might be positive for the debate, forcing politicians of all stripes to discuss the topic. He certainly has generated discussion about immigration. However, so far, it doesn’t look like the discussion has been all that positive.


Photo by Elvert Barnes

Some years ago, a colleague and I shared Sanneh’s background sentiment — that an absence of proper discussion in mainstream politics about immigration gives space to extreme views (we were reflecting on the U.K. context). However, we worried about the risk of further polarisation.

With a new extreme put into the mainstream, even those espousing quite far-out views can still appear moderate in comparison. A recent piece by Gary Younge observes, with chilling clarity, that this may be what we are seeing in the United States, as he traces what he refers to as Trump’s ‘transition from ridiculous to dangerous’.

That’s the thing: it’s not only Trump, and it’s not only the extremist politicians of Europe, who are expressing these views. They seem to be percolating much more broadly. The opponents to the Trumpisms discussed in this post are many and diverse, from clergy to cartoonists. And yet these views continue to take hold. That is why it is necessary to speak out and be counted, no matter how trivial the discussion in this particular post may seem.

And that’s why, as Trump scores highly in one primary after another and it becomes harder and harder to stomach the election discourse, I decided finally to take this blog post back down off the shelf. It is my small contribution towards maintaining sanity about immigration and Islam during an election period that I hope won’t make it into the history books. The only way to stop it from being one of those moments is if those who disagree stand up and say so.

Tendayi Bloom is a Post-Doctoral Associate and Lecturer at the Global Justice Program, Yale University. She writes on questions of noncitizenship, statelessness and privatized migration control from the perspective of legal and political theory and international law and policy. The views she expresses are her own.

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