Mounting xenophobia among US Republican candidates

Friday 27/11/2015
Immigrant rights protesters raise a banner during Republican presidential debate, on November 20th, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Washington - Americans are rightly proud of their political traditions encompassed in such documents as the Declaration of Inde­pendence and the US constitution. And as a nation of immigrants, the United States has generally been a welcoming country to those fleeing persecution or who simply want a better economic future.

But there have also been ugly pe­riods in American history when fear and prejudice against the “other” gripped the body politic.

In the past hundred years, such episodes of xenophobia included the highly restrictive immigration act of 1924 that was used to exclude people from Eastern and Southern Europe and from the Middle East; the turning back of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in the late 1930s; the internment of Japanese- Americans during World War II; and sporadic attacks against Muslim Americans in the aftermath of 9/11.

Sadly, the Paris terrorist attacks combined with the migrant crisis have sparked another bout of xeno­phobia, which is most publicly ap­parent in the appalling political discourse among most Republican presidential candidates.

US Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has said the United States should only allow in Syrian Christians, not Mus­lims, a comment that was echoed by former Florida governor Jeb Bush, though Bush later distanced him­self from the statement. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said all Syr­ian refugees should be turned away, even children under 5 years of age.

Not to be outdone, businessman Donald Trump and his top rival, Ben Carson — who are currently at the top of the Republican polls — went much further. Trump has said he would “strongly consider” shut­ting down mosques, would “abso­lutely” want a data base of Muslim- Americans and would not rule out requiring Muslims to carry an iden­tification card that would note their religion.

Carson compared the migrants to a rabid dog: “If there is a rabid dog running around your neighbour­hood, you’re probably not going to assume something good about that dog… It doesn’t mean you hate all dogs… but you are putting your in­tellect into motion.”

When Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was given the chance by a re­porter to criticise Trump’s remarks, he dodged the issue. Instead, Rubio likened the Paris attacks to a “clash of civilisations”.

These Republican candidates seemed to have forgotten former President George W. Bush’s finest hour. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, he went to a mosque and accused the terrorists of trying to hijack the Islamic faith. “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends,” Bush said, “[but] a radical network of terrorists.”

Fear and prejudice have not only gripped most of the Republican candidates but also the Republican-controlled US House of Representa­tives. On November 19th, the House passed a bill with overwhelming Republican support (as well as 47 Democrats) that would require the FBI director to certify the back­ground investigation of each refu­gee from Syria and Iraq. In addition, US security services would have to certify that none of the refugees is a security risk.

It is not clear if the bill will pass the Senate, and it is impractical on many levels, not least of which would be to bottle up the FBI direc­tor’s time with a huge bureaucratic undertaking.

Although some Democratic gov­ernors and other local Democratic officials are on board with this xenophobic bandwagon, the three Democratic presidential candidates denounced it in no uncertain terms.

Hillary Clinton, for example, said that turning away orphans, apply­ing a religious test, and discriminat­ing against Muslims is “just not who we are.” Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley sharply criticised Trump for suggesting an ID system for Muslims. And Senator Bernie Sanders, from Vermont, denounced what he saw was “Islamophobia” and said he will “not turn our backs on the refugees”.

The Democratic candidates are taking the high road and are remind­ing the American electorate that the Republican candidates’ positions on this issue are contrary to American values.

Although such noble sentiments will resonate with the Democratic candidates’ more liberal base, an­other major terrorist incident in Europe or one in the United States would have the effect of solidifying the anti-refugee sentiment among Republicans, independents and even some Democrats.

There are many ironies here. Most of the perpetrators of the Paris at­tacks were French- or Belgian-born Muslims, not members of the recent wave of refugees. Moreover, US au­thorities already have in place an ex­tensive refugee screening process.

If the fear is that the Islamic State (ISIS) will infiltrate terrorists into the refugee masses, wouldn’t that be akin to Fidel Castro trying to in­filtrate communists into Cuban mi­grants seeking refuge in the United States since the early 1960s? If the current rhetoric were applied then, the United States would not have al­lowed any Cubans to seek refuge, in­cluding the father of Ted Cruz. How easily some people forget.