THE OBAMA administration’s goal of accepting 110,000 refugees in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 — a nearly 30 percent increase from the current level and a nearly 60 percent jump from the three previous years — is an amply justified response to the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, and it prompted predictable snarls from congressional Republicans. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said the president’s new target ignores “the common sense concerns of the American people,” and Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, said the influx of refugees, including from Syria, disregards “how it will impact local communities.”
The Sessions-Goodlatte impulse fits a xenophobic historical pattern of U.S. antipathy toward foreigners — especially those fleeing war and persecution — that clashes with the cherished image of an open-hearted nation greeting the poor, huddled masses.
One can well imagine with what warmth, or lack of it, Mr. Sessions and Mr. Goodlatte might have welcomed previous waves of unwashed and desperate refugees from, say, Hungary in 1958; Indochina in 1979; Cuba in 1980; or, for that matter, the European Jews who urgently sought refuge here in the late 1930s. Today, of course, they might celebrate those immigrants and their successful assimilation, yet when those refugees were knocking on this nation’s door, large majorities of Americans opposed their admission.
Survey data gathered last year by the Pew Research Center provide a picture of Americans’ past hostility. In 1958, soon after the Soviet Union squashed a liberation movement in Hungary, 55 percent of Americans disapproved of a plan to admit 65,000 Hungarian refugees. In 1979, 62 percent of Americans disliked an initiative to absorb 14,000 refugees per month, double the existing number, from Indochina following the end of America’s military engagement there. And in 1980, more than 70 percent of Americans opposed the Mariel boatlift, when the Castro dictatorship in Havana allowed tens of thousands of Cubans to set off for Florida.
In each case, refugees resettled in the United States in large numbers, defying predictions that their admission would trigger social upheaval and economic disaster, much as previous immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe overcame the antagonism of those who had preceded them to U.S. shores.
The long history of fear and hatred directed toward refugees in the abstract — tempered by the warm-hearted embrace with which many have been greeted in real life by their new American neighbors, churches and communities — is often swept under the historical rug because it is so blatantly disgraceful. Politicians like Mr. Sessions and Mr. Goodlatte would no doubt decry America’s failure to rescue more Jews from Europe immediately before Hitler unleashed the Holocaust. Yet in 1938, on the eve of World War II, two-thirds of Americans opposed the admission of refugees, including children, from Germany and Austria.
The current hostility of many Americans toward admitting Syrian Muslim refugees is based on ostensible concerns about terrorists mingling among the migrants. Yet it fits the pattern of historical nativism, justified by different arguments at different times. To his credit, Mr. Obama grasps the prejudice at the root of the opposition, and has the courage to disregard it.
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