Donald Trump, Islamophobia and Immigrants

Photo by Dano | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Dano | CC BY 2.0


“… ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”

— John Dos Passos

Donald Trump is not the first American politician to troll the waters of anti-immigrant paranoia in search of political advantage. It is one of the recurring themes of American political life, stretching as far back as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Mexicans and Muslims are only the most recent targets for this brand of political chicanery. The difference is that Mexicans represent a distinct nationality group, while Muslims represent a religious faith, encompassing people of many different nationalities. As President, you start with a huge diplomatic problem when you have managed to insult a nation of 122 million people by suggesting they may be “murderers and rapists,” for which a huge wall is needed to keep them out. Even George W. Bush knew better than to malign 50 Muslim majority countries, population 1.6 billion, by tarring them all with the brush of terrorism.

Muslims are particularly vulnerable because of the on-going turmoil and violence in the Middle East, set off by our invasion of Iraq, and the more recent terror attacks in Europe and the US. Trump claims that Muslim immigrants, irrespective of nationality, pose a direct threat to America’s security and has called for “extreme vetting” of those wishing to come to America, including possible establishment of a Muslim data base or registry, an issue on which he has been either coy or confused. He has suggested that American Muslims “were all but complicit in acts of domestic terrorism for failing to report attacks in advance, asserting without evidence, that they had warnings of shootings like the one in Orlando.”

Religious bigotry, hostility, racism and even violence against immigrants are nothing new to our country. If it were not so unsettling, Muslims might take comfort in the fact that all immigrant groups have suffered through this painful rite of American passage on their way to assimilation. Unfortunately, in the case of Muslims, there are political interests and politicians who find advantage in stirring up anti-Islamic sentiment.

In July 2010, hypocrite-in-chief, Newt Gingrich addressed the America Enterprise Institute, bastion of neocon ideology, warning that Sharia (Islamic religious law), is an existential threat to American survival. He called for a campaign comparable in magnitude to what we did during the cold war. “I believe Sharia is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it. I think it’s that straightforward and that real.”

More recently, at the Republican National Convention, Gingrich said, “If our enemies (radical Islamists) had their way, every person on earth would be subject to conversion by the sword and to a cruel and violent system of law. There would be no individual liberty. There would be no equality. There would be no freedom.” Conversion by the sword? Really? Perhaps, dear old Newt is living in a different century, although he is symptomatic of the Chicken Little tone of such appeals.

The campaign against Sharia by Mr. Gingrich, and some of the more obsessed acolytes of the neocon lobby, is just one aspect of an anti-Islamic campaign that threatens the rights and safety of American Muslims. The anti-Sharia gambit has been over-shadowed, however, by the acts of extremist violence in France, San Bernardino, Orlando, and more recently in New York, as the basis on which Islamophobia can be propagated.   It is not difficult for an opportunistic politician to take advantage of the natural insecurity and fear provoked by these violent acts to convince a worried public that he has all the answers. It just requires us to click our heels together three times and repeat the words “radical Islamic extremism,” and the whole problem will disappear.

In some senses, the immigration of people from Islamic countries has been a quiet one, that is, until 9/11, when the attention of the whole world was focused on the 19 alleged hijackers, all from Islamic countries, but mainly from Saudi Arabia. According to George W. Bush, they were part of a jihadist campaign against America, because, “They hate our freedoms — our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” But Bush was careful to differentiate between those he identified as Al-Qaeda terrorists and Muslims in general. He also said in his speech to Congress:

“I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans, and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.”

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration was able to tamp down to some degree anti-Muslim sentiment in this country. He teetered, however, on a high wire between claiming that the terrorists were motivated by their “radical” Islamic faith, while absolving Muslims and Islam, in general, of any responsibility for their conduct. Americans often were not able to make such fine distinctions. Anyone with a beard or a turban became suspect. Many Sikhs, who are neither Muslims nor Arabs, felt the repercussions from people who didn’t know the difference.

We also became involved in two wars that tended to focus attention on conflicts overseas rather than internal tensions here at home. Although there was distrust and suspicion of Muslims throughout this period, it has recently become more virulent. According to a new study from the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, anti-Muslim hate crimes increased in 2015, coinciding with attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, and the rise of Donald Trump, the GOP nominee for president who has called for intensified scrutiny of Muslims entering the United States.

James Nolan, a former F.B.I. crime analyst who teaches about hate crimes at West Virginia University, said that the data seemed to show “a real spike” in hate crimes against American Muslims, caused in part by candidates’ “raising the specter that radical Islam is at our doorstep.” Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups and extremism, went further. ‘I don’t have the slightest doubt that Trump’s campaign rhetoric has played a big part’ in the rising attacks, he said.”

Muslim migration to the United States began as early as 1840 with the arrival of people from Yemen and Turkey. Small-scale migration continued until the advent of WWI. These immigrants settled primarily in Dearborn, Michigan; Quincy, Massachusetts; and Ross, North Dakota, which is the site of the first documented mosque and Muslim Cemetery. There is no widely accepted figure of how many Muslims currently reside in the United States. The 2014 estimate suggests about 3.3 million or just 1% of the total US population.

Irish Catholics had no easy time integrating into American society, combining, as they did, animosity towards both their religion and their nationality. In 1844, protestant mobs in Philadelphia rioted against Irish Catholics, while in Boston, a mob of Protestant workmen burned down a Catholic convent. But the Irish, being a more combative group, didn’t take it lying down.

“The Irish in Philadelphia promptly gathered into mobs of their own and fought back, with the violence lasting over three days. (Not a course of action to be recommended.) Two Catholic churches were burned down along with hundreds of Irish homes and a dozen immigrants killed. In New York, Archbishop John Hughes, on hearing of the Philadelphia attacks, deployed armed Irishmen to protect his own churches. Then he paid a visit to New York’s mayor and warned him that if just one Catholic Church was touched, the Irish would burn all of Manhattan to the ground. Other cities that experienced anti-Catholic violence, included Baltimore, St. Louis, New Orleans and Louisville, Kentucky.”

The 19th Century, Know-Nothing Party, the “deplorables” of that era, consisted of militant anti-Catholics who sought to “curtail Irish immigration and keep them from becoming naturalized Americans … to prevent them from ever gaining political power.” The movement was most successful in Massachusetts, which elected Know-Nothing candidates to every statewide office in 1854, including governor.” Anti-Irish sentiment was pervasive throughout the country and newspaper advertisements for jobs and housing in Boston, New York and other places … routinely ended with “Positively No Irish Need Apply.”

Italian immigrants had it no easier. From 1876-1924, more than 4.5 million Italians arrived in the United States, and over two million came in the years 1901-1910 alone. Using kin and village-based chain migration networks, they clustered heavily in cities in the Northeast region (the Mid-Atlantic and New England states) and the Midwest, with outposts in California and Louisiana.

“As a despised minority rooted in the working class and seemingly resistant to assimilation, Italians suffered widespread discrimination in housing and employment. American responses to the immigrants occasionally took uglier forms as Italians became the victims of intimidation and violence, the most notorious incident being the 1890 lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans. Italian mass migration coincided with the growth of a [American] nativism that identified southern and eastern Europeans as undesirable elements. Criticism of Italians became integral to the successful legislative drives to enact the nativist Literacy Test in 1917 and National Origins Acts in 1921 and 1924.”

By 1790, there were between 1000 to 2000 Jewish people living in America, mostly Dutch Sephardic Jews, Jews from England, and British subjects. The American Jewish community grew to about 15,000 by 1840, and to about 250,000 by 1880. Most of the mid-19th century Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants to the US came from German-speaking states, as part of the larger concurrent German migration.

Between 1880 and the start of World War I in 1914, about two million Ashkenazi Jews immigrated from Eastern Europe, where repeated pogroms made life difficult. They came from Jewish populations of Russia, the Pale of Settlement (modern Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova), and the Russian-controlled portions of Poland. This wave was also part of a larger migration of eastern and southern European immigrants, which was unlike the historically predominant American demographic from northern and Western Europe. Records indicate between 1880 and 1920 these new immigrants rose from less than five percent of all European immigrants to nearly 50%. As Jewish immigration increased in the late 1800’s and early 20th century, “negative stereotypes of Jews in newspapers, literature, drama, art, and popular culture grew more commonplace and physical attacks became more frequent.”

Of all groups, the Chinese probably faired the worst. The first wave of Chinese immigration corresponded with the California Gold Rush of 1849. As the California gold veins dried up, anti-Chinese sentiments and discrimination escalated. By 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress, which banned all Chinese immigration. It was intended as a temporary measure for ten years, but was extended and finally made permanent in 1902. The Act was only repealed in 1943 when China was needed as an ally against Japan.

In all of the cases cited, anti-immigrant prejudice and politics made for a volatile mix, and often lead to violence. Although we pride ourselves in being a country of immigrants and the great “melting pot,” the immigrant story has been a rocky one as we see today with Mexican, South American and Muslim immigrants. We are called the “… land of the free and the home of the brave,” and, as history shows, to be an immigrant in America, you have to be brave indeed.

The deepest contradiction of our American heritage is that we are all immigrants. We are all descended from immigrant families, except Native Americans whose ancestors were already here, and who were driven off their land and their way of life by the trickle, then flood, of European immigrants. It is perhaps from this original sin of dispossession that every subsequent group of immigrants, instinctively fears that they too may be dispossessed by the next. But there are other, more immediate sources of anti-immigrant hostility, including economic insecurity, unemployment, illegal activities, taking unfair advantage of social and health services, “strange” cultural and religious beliefs and practices, perceived threats to national security in the guise of radical extremism, and plain old racial and ethnic bigotry. But for the whole thing to go downhill, it usually requires some unscrupulous politician to stir the pot.

We have always needed immigrants as a source of cheap labor to fill our factories and manufacturing jobs, particularly in early part of the 20th century. The need for immigrants continues today, although the qualifications have changed. As business has moved manufacturing overseas to capture cheaper labor, we have given preference to highly skilled and professional immigrants, which is the case for many Muslims who come here. Forty-five percent of Muslim immigrants report annual household incomes of $50,000 or higher, due to the strong concentration in professional, managerial, and technical fields, especially in information technology, education, medicine, law, and the corporate world.

The situation with Mexicans and South Americans is different. Since we can’t export our agricultural land overseas to employ cheap labor, we rely on workers from Mexico and other Latin American countries who will do the kind of menial agricultural and household work that most Americans won’t do. The 11 million undocumented people in the country are here because of the promise of jobs and work. For companies and households needing this kind of labor, there has always been complicity, or turning a blind eye to the undocumented. So again, we see a big area of contradiction in our relationship to immigrants.

No one knows what Donald Trump will do if elected President, but we can guess a few things he won’t do. He won’t build a wall on the border with Mexico and get the Mexicans to pay for it. Any Mexican President would be impeached and thrown out of office by his own people if he were to even suggest paying for a Wall between the two countries. The American Congress is immobilized by partisan gridlock and can’t even agree on repairing our roads and bridges, speak nothing of building walls.

Trump will also not deport 11 million undocumented aliens. The logistics of such an operation are staggering and would divert our police and immigration services from carrying out their normal protective duties. Moreover, the economics of such an operation would seriously weaken our country:

Mass deportation would immediately reduce the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2.6 percent over 10 years, with an annual loss of $434 billion, and reducing cumulative GDP by $4.7 trillion over 10 years, according to “The Economic Impacts of Removing Unauthorized Immigrant Workers” by economists Ryan Edwards and Francesc Ortega.

This doesn’t even account for the massive price tag for locating and removing millions of people from the country. Those policies would also cost the federal government nearly $900 billion in lost revenue over 10 years, raise the federal debt, and raise the debt-to-GDP ratio by six percent.”

In the case of Muslims, Trump may increase the number of bureaucratic hoops they have to jump through to get into the country, and even extract a pledge of love from new immigrants. In a kind of reverse image of what Bush said after 9/11, Trump insists they must “love our freedoms — our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” But none of that will really address the issue of violence and terrorism in America, most of which has been committed by born in the USA Americans. Between 1982 and 2016, out of 83 mass shootings or acts of terror, an immigrant committed only one; white people born here committed 48.

I will not close by quoting the famous words of Poet Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statute Of Liberty; they are too well known, and too frequently forgotten. Instead, I leave you with the words of Edna Ferber from a 1947 radio broadcast: “A closed country is a dying country… A closed mind is a dying mind.”