On Thursday, students and faculty gathered in Hollander Hall for an informal roundtable on the ramifications of President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries. Professor Jacqueline Hidalgo of Latino/a studies, Professor Magnus Bernhardsson of history and Professor Zaid Adhami of religion led the discussion, which focused on the legal and ethical implications of the ban and its place in the historical and geopolitical landscape of the United States.
Trump issued the executive order on Jan. 27, suspending admission for refugees for 120 days and putting a 90-day hold on entry into the country for nationals of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen so that federal agencies can review the vetting process. Trump stated that the order is intended “to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America,” following his campaign rhetoric to block Muslim immigration to the U.S.
Judge James L. Robart of the Federal District Court in Seattle temporarily blocked the order on Feb. 3, after Washington state challenged its legality. The San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit later upheld that decision.
Hidalgo opened the roundtable with a contextualization of the order and Trump’s rhetoric within American history.
“His actions are uniquely painful to many,” she said, “but they can also be read as belonging to a history of U.S. nationalism and nativism that stretches back to the start.”
The rhetoric of public safety in America has roots as far back as the Naturalization Acts of the 18th century and the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, she said. These and further acts like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act all “presumed the idea of the United States as a Christian, white supremacist state.”
The late 20th century saw a shift toward acceptance, according to Hidalgo, but tension between exclusion and inclusion remained deeply embedded in the nation’s sentiments.
Bernhardsson spoke to the fundamental commitment that the United States made toward refugees in the 1951 Refugee Convention, when countries obligated themselves to take those fearing persecution into safe spaces.
“There’s a hypocritical aspect to it,” he said, “and a human cruelty aspect.” He pointed out that the order is especially morally and politically troubling considering the role of the U.S. in stoking conflict in the Middle East.
“Distancing oneself from the problem that the U.S. surely had a hand in creating is so immoral,” he said.
The concept of U.S. responsibility sparked a discussion of refugee policy in other conflicts, including the Vietnam War. Hidalgo posited that active involvement with accepting Vietnamese refugees stemmed from both the unique ideology of anti-communism and the media furor at the time.
“There was a broader public perception of U.S. involvement,” she said. “The connection that the average citizen has with any conflict decreases with each additional conflict.”
Zaid argued that “the boogeyman of ISIS,” looming in the American imagination, was also a major factor in the ban, especially with regard to Syrian refugees.
In the post-9/11 world, Bernhardsson pointed out, national security agencies rushed to recruit Arabic speakers but stayed away from the pool of Arab-American citizens, unlike in World War II, when the U.S. heavily recruited German Americans.
“There’s a questioning of full loyalty,” Bernhardsson said.
Hidalgo said that she saw the possibility for change through the courts, since the judiciary had viewed the ban as a violation of U.S. law. She pointed out that major legal cases could change the way the majority views issues, like in the case of Loving v. Virginia. “Law can have a persuasive role,” she said.
Both presenters and participants worried about the implications for the future of American national security, suggesting that the next terrorist attack on U.S. soil could give Trump and the new administration the justification and popular supportfor more extreme measures.
“A more cynical interpretation is that as soon as the next attack hits,” said Zaid, “the administration can blame the judiciary, the media and the populous and expand their efforts in the name of national security. What’s in store when the next thing happens?”
Gail Newman, professor of German, spoke to the danger of an event that could psychologically align people with Trump’s rhetoric.
“There’s this mentality of reveling in disaster,” she said. “And that can whip up fear.”