Refugees and Regimes: Using Historical Precedent to Address the Migrant Crisis

By Nala Chehade, Blogger for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs

Recent executive orders have threatened the livelihood of potential immigrants to the United States, questioned traditional American values, and posed a risk for the future of international security. Although the infamous executive orders on immigration have been blocked[1] by various circuit courts, these orders clearly demonstrate the desire of some Americans to restrict immigration. Such wishes ignore the negative historical consequences of such actions. In the following paragraphs, I highlight these effects in addition to the modern refugee crisis in the Levant region.

The United States of America has served as a home for immigrants for centuries, earning the nickname “melting pot”[2] of cultures. According to Lee Greenwood and the countless individuals who enjoy his song at bars and barbecues, “I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free.” With freedom comes responsibility. I’ve always pictured the United States as a nation built on the hard work and determination of immigrants. I cite the example of professors, politicians, and family members before me.

Colonist John Winthrop envisioned the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a “city upon a hill, [with] the eyes of all people upon us.”[3] As early as 1630, individuals realized America’s potential to be a welcoming home. The belief that the United States is not in an adequate state to embrace refugees ignores not only the strength of the U.S. as a global world power, but also the example that countries with far fewer resources than the United States set. Lebanon has the greatest per capita concentration of refugees in the world.[4] With a two-year political vacuum, decades-old internal divisions, and an infant government, Lebanon is in a comparatively far less adequate position to welcome refugees. Similarly, refugees compose about 10% of the population of Jordan.[5] Grappling with issues[6] like public debt, water insecurity, and an absence of oil wealth, the Hashemite Kingdom is also in a less ideal state to welcome refugees.

The former mayor of Roanoke, VA notoriously approved the suspension of assistance to Syrian refugees, justifying his actions by referencing Japanese internment during World War II.[7] To review, the Japanese government agreed to “deny passports to laborers intending to enter the United States”[8] through the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement. The Immigration Act of 1924, which “provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census [and] completely excluded immigrants from Asia”,[9] came as a slap in the face to the Japanese.  The United States suffered during the Pearl Harbor attack, undoubtedly contributing to FDR’s signing of Executive Order 9066[10] that cleared the path for internment. The memory is often considered a “shameful”[11] moment in American history, for which the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 formally apologized.

Even in the 21st century, uncertainty over immigration, race, and refugees remains a real concern. During the Fall 2016 semester, Virginia Tech hosted a panel discussion about the global refugee crisis. The experts explained the lengthiness of the American vetting process, which can take several years. This causes several problems for refugees, most obviously questions about effectiveness for refugees seeking to escape present physical danger. Despite extensive reviews and screenings from UNHCR, the DHS, the FBI, the State Department, and the National Counterterrorism Center, the U.S. accepts roughly 1% of the 21 million global refugees. The present U.S. administration’s suggestion for the increase in extremity and cautiousness in our vetting system demonstrates little faith in the work of federal agencies and international organizations. Making a single, blanket generalization about an enormous population of people and using that same generalization to ban millions of individuals from entering the United States undoubtedly creates more problems than the executive orders seek to address.

In conclusion, historical attempts to limit immigration based on identity resulted in violent ramifications. We are fortunate enough as Americans to have resources to screen newcomers in order to maintain domestic security. Despite logical worries about the tradeoff between diversity and unity, the United States is undoubtedly better equipped than most countries to balance this. Lebanon and Jordan, two countries with the greatest number of refugees per capita, have recently begun to see the negative economic and social consequences of the rapid increase in population. This is due not to the nature of refugees, but to long-standing internal political and economic problems. If the United States were to increase their willingness to accept refugees and immigrants, this would relieve stress in the Middle East and contribute to international peace and security.

Nala Chehade is a Junior at Virginia Tech, where she studies International Studies and History with minors in Spanish and Middle East Studies.





[4] “Refugees from Syria: Lebanon.” UNHCR. March 2015.