The American Historical Association strongly condemns the executive order issued by President Donald J. Trump on January 27 purportedly “protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States.” Historians look first to evidence: deaths from terrorism in the United States in the last fifteen years have come at the hands of native-born citizens and people from countries other than the seven singled out for exclusion in the order. Attention to evidence raises the question as to whether the order actually speaks to the dangers of foreign terrorism.
The resolution starts out with a sophistical piece of verbal sleight of hand. Note the use of 15 years as the relevant time scale. Why? Why not 20 years or 25 years? Because if a time scale longer than 15 years were used, 9-11 would be included, and the initial statement would be rendered false. As an attorney, and familiar with weasel worded arguments, I have nothing but contempt for this type of lie of omission.
It is more clear that the order will have a significant and detrimental impact on thousands of innocent people, whether inhabitants of refugee camps across the world who have waited months or even years for interviews scheduled in the coming month (now canceled), travelers en route to the United States with valid visas or other documentation, or other categories of residents of the United States, including many of our students and colleagues.
Actually the Administration acted swiftly to fix the Executive Order for green card holders. As for refugees, this was intended to be a temporary ban until proper vetting procedures could be put into place. Last year the Director of the FBI testified before Congress that then current vetting procedures were inadequate.
The AHA urges the policy community to learn from our nation’s history. Formulating or analyzing policy by historical analogy admittedly can be dangerous; context matters. But the past does provide warnings, especially given advantages of hindsight. What we have seen before can help us understand possible implications of the executive order. The most striking example of American refusal to admit refugees was during the 1930s, when Jews and others fled Nazi Germany. A combination of hostility toward a particular religious group combined with suspicions of disloyalty and potential subversion by supposed radicals anxious to undermine our democracy contributed to exclusionist administrative procedures that slammed shut the doors on millions of refugees. Many were subsequently systematically murdered as part of the German “final solution to the Jewish question.” Ironically, President Trump issued his executive order on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
An organization that purports to represent American historians should do a better job with history. As of 1939 the US had admitted 95,000 German Jewish refugees. This was out of a total of 282,000 German Jewish refugees, and 117,000 Austrian Jewish refugees, who had emigrated from Nazi Germany, including Austria, up to 1939.