This election cycle has developed into one of the most unusual in recent history. One of the reasons — besides the big personalities — is where the campaign cycle's policy debates have taken us.
We've seen an unusual number ideas — most of them not totally new and many of them already proven illegal, inhumane or ineffective — presented to the public as if no voter, anywhere, is aware of history. Ideas that have been mothballed in ignominy are coming at voters framed as bright and bold proposals.
Allow us to share just three examples. You might notice a theme.
1. Internment camps
We kind of had to start here.
In January 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued a proclamation requiring immigrants from the countries that formed the World War II Axis powers — Italy, Germany and Japan — to register with the United States Department of Justice. Roosevelt had been advised to move these individuals away from sensitive areas such as the coasts to prevent acts of sabotage and collusion.
The Justice Department initially advised against forcing people anywhere based on their origins or ancestry because it was likely unconstitutional. But after Japan's attack on Pear Harbor, tension, fear and anger inside the United States ran more than high. By February, Roosevelt's proclamation led to the forced internment of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans. And, by the following year, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans (or as many as 120,000, by other estimates) were forced out of their homes, to surrender their property and to move to camps in the middle of the United States.
This week, Roanoke, Va., Mayor David Bowers, a Democrat, said this history alone was enough of a reason for the country to stop accepting Syrian refugees. According to Bowers, Roosevelt's actions show that group suspicion and containment is sometimes necessary and proper.
That suggestion or comparison is actually just all kinds of wrong and certainly improper. And the United States government has admitted that. In 1988, the federal government apologized for interning Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans. Then, it paid $20,000 to each survivor of what was deemed the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
In the end, the country spent more than $1.6 billion on reparations.
2. Create a national registry or database of Muslims
This one, we strongly debated listing first. But it was a toss-up. Ultimately, The Fix decided that the context of Bowers's internment camp comment was necessary to fully appreciate the origins and potential ramifications of calls this week for a database of all Muslims in the United States. In the latest installment of the GOP battle to overwhelm the competition with policy that carries more than a whiff of xenophobia, bigotry or whatever your preferred word for group-oriented disdain, Donald Trump has talked about instituting a Muslim registry.
Yes. A list of every Muslim in the United States of America, the country to which European settlers came in search of fortune and religious freedom.
This is a package of ideas so odious that it's hard even to know where to begin. But let's start here. Both ideas are almost certainly unconstitutional and have proven handy tools for persecution and mass abuses of human rights in the 20th century. Now, we will say in advance that this is not a comparison we make lightly. But here's the deal, America: These ideas don't just sound to some ears like something the Nazis would do. This is exactly what the Nazis did.
Jews in Germany and German-occupied countries throughout Europe were required, by law, to register themselves, their businesses and other assets with the regime. There were actual lists of Jews in every country and in some with political or ideological ties to the Nazi regime. Then, there were also the ID cards marked with a "J" and Stars of David that Jews were required to affix to their clothing and that were posted on businesses owned by Jews with signs warning non-Jews to avoid commerce at these spots. All of this, of course, eventually helped to facilitate the corralling of Jews in specific areas, mass deportation and murder.
If this Trump proposal sounds at all pragmatic or justifiable to you, please go back and read items one and two on this list again, twice. Then, click and read all of the links above. And note that other Republicans have quickly distanced themselves from this particular idea.
Group registries. Forced identification. Round-ups. Internment. Murder. Enough said.
3. Build a wall between the United States and Mexico
And this one you had to anticipate. It differs slightly from the first two items on this list in that it is a policy that was debated with great fervor, funded and implemented in the very recent past. Also, the border barrier does not pose an immediate threat to human rights or safety. And it is not illegal. But it does appear to have been a colossal waste of time, energy and federal resources. It does leave the United States open to some unwelcome comparisons. And this year, like the ideas above, it has been trotted out as if new and previously untried.
In September 2006, the Secure Fence Act passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President George W. Bush. Bush said it would make the border more secure and represented an "important step toward immigration reform." A then-Sen. Barack Obama voted for the bill. However, Obama said during the 2008 presidential campaign that such a fence would not likely be effective.
The Secure Fence Act granted more funding to the nation's border patrol agency for technology (including drones) and other resources to increase border monitoring, reduce illegal immigration and drug trafficking. And a second bill provided $1.2 billion to cover the cost of nearly 700 miles of fence. Critics said border fencing would likely cost far more and ultimately prove ineffective. The border fencing was not designed to be contiguous, could be tunneled under and, critics said, would likely redirect the flow of human and drug traffic.
By February 2009, more than 600 miles of fencing had been erected. But, the last bit of fencing in Texas was delayed by property rights disputes and environmental concerns. The Wall Street Journal reported that with land acquisition and construction costs the government had spent about $3.9 million for every mile of fencing. And that figure came from the federal government's chief auditing agency, the Government Accountability Office. If you haven't done the math yet, at that rate a complete fence would likely cost about $2.6 billion.
At the time, U.S. border patrol did report a nearly 20 percent drop in the number of people apprehended trying to illegally cross the border. Of course apprehensions aren't an exact count of attempted or successful crossings but do give the government a sense of the volume of people trying at any given point in time. But a second report generated by the Congressional Research Service also found what the Journal described as strong evidence that migrants had simply begun using other routes into the United States.
Fast forward to 2015. On Thursday, the Pew Research Center released a report showing that since the Great Recession, more Mexicans had left the United States than entered between 2009 and 2014, creating a net loss of Mexican migrants (legal and illegal). This is based on information gathered by both governments and considered a major indicator of reduced immigration to the United States as Mexicans those from countries to the south in Central America have long comprised the majority of new arrivals to the United States. In truth, it has been apparent for some time that immigration from all of Latin America has declined sharply since the Great Recession began.
It turns out the recession, or the absence of jobs, did much more to rapidly dampen the human exchange between the United States and Mexico. The recession, most demographers and economists believe, likely did much more than the multi-billion bits of fence.