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Syrian Refugees Look to America – But Does America Care?

“Welcoming others is part of what it means to be American” President Barack Obama said in his recent Thanksgiving Day address. It is a sentiment he has sought to put into action, promising to accept 10 000 Syrian refugees, most of them children, next year and demonstrating leadership on the refugee crisis that has shaken Europe this summer. But is America really a nation with a proud tradition of accepting others? In the current toxic political climate Syrian refugees have been compared with “wild dogs” by a leading Presidential candidate, told by Governors from half of the states that they’re not welcome, and faced a poll which showed that 53% of Americans believe that none of them should be granted asylum by the “land of the free”. Unfortunately, this virulent anti-immigration sentiment is a constant theme of American history - not an aberration.

In 1798 President John Adams, the United States’ second president, passed a series of laws which became known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. Enacted as a response to the French Revolution and the so-called ‘Quasi-War’ between the French and American navies, the bills collectively placed severe restrictions on immigration and curtailed the political rights of those who had already arrived. One change included extending the length of time before an immigrant could vote from five years to fourteen. Harrison Gray Otis, a congressman from Massachusetts, called for America to reject “the turbulent and disorderly of all the world” whose purpose in coming to America was to “distract our tranquility”.

The next great wave of anti-immigration sentiment manifested itself in the Nativist, or ‘Know-Nothing’, movement of the mid 18th century. This arose as a response to Irish and German Catholic immigration and marked the emergence of a clear sectarian divide between Protestants and Catholics. Protestants blamed Catholic immigrants for an increase in crime and corruption in the major cities. One notable Nativist, President of MIT Francis Walker, viewed these immigrants as “beaten men from beaten races… the worst failures in the struggle for existence”. Nativists sought to curtail Catholic involvement in politics, alleging that the newcomers owed their loyalty more to Rome than America, a charge that Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy would still be facing over a century later. And this was no small movement – by 1854 the Native American Party controlled over one fifth of the Congress.

Even by the time of the Second World War, when America was beginning to abandon its long-held isolationist position, attitudes towards those fleeing from persecution remained hardened. A Gallup poll taken in 1939, after the horrors of Kristallnacht, found that only 26% of Americans favoured bringing refugee German children to the United States. A majority of Americans even opposed the temporary resettlement of children from the Allied nations of England and France. Adding to this climate of suspicion and fear, President Franklin D. Roosevelt warned the nation of the possibility of a “Trojan horse” or “spies, saboteurs, and traitors” entering America and trying to make her fall from within. He used this as an excuse to implement a vast “Enemy Alien Control Program” in which over 31 000 German, Japanese, and Italian immigrants were detained at internment camps in the United States. Thousands more were permanently deported.

American participation in the two mid-century Asian wars did not change attitudes either. During the Korean War of 1950-53 America still maintained restrictions on allowing naturalisation for non-white people. Excluding wives of US military personnel, annual Korean migration was capped at 100. Similarly, the Vietnam war failed to significantly alter American perception of Asian immigration. A majority of Americans repeatedly opposed the resettlement of Vietnamese immigrants in the United States. In fact, according to Gallup, there has only ever been one poll where a majority of respondents favoured accepting refugees from a war zone - Albanian refugees in the wake of the Kosovo conflict in 1999.

We can see, then, that the current harsh debate is not unprecedented in American history. When Donald Trump says that he supports creating a register of Muslim people in America, he is clearly in the tradition of the Alien and Sedition Acts of the early Republic. Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz are modern day Know-Nothings when they propose a religious test for Syrian refugees. And Donald Trump’s repeated assertions that Syrians could be “Trojan Horses” is straight out of FDR’s playbook. So why is it surprising that a majority of American oppose accepting Syrian refugees? They’ve done so in the aftermath of all the wars (excluding one) that America has been involved in over the past two centuries.

On a global scale what America has done for Syrian refugees is minute. It has taken less than 2000 Syrian refugees this year – less than some villages in Lebanon – while Germany, with a quarter of America’s population, has taken over 40 000. For Obama to succeed in his plan to bring 10 000 Syrian refugees in 2016 he needs not to appeal to America’s past but to challenge it.

Mitchell Robertson is the US Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image Credit: United States Mission Geneva (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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