Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) was born in the United States, the son of a Palestinian refugee father and a Syrian immigrant mother. So perhaps it’s no surprise that he is one of the GOP’s most outspoken critics of President Trump’s immigration order.
“I’ve had both of those aspects in my life — the immigrant aspect and the refugee aspect,” Amash said in an interview Wednesday on Capitol Hill. “I believe it’s important that we remain a welcoming country, that people feel they have the opportunity to come here and start a new life.”
Amash is one of six lawmakers of Arab descent suddenly thrust into the spotlight thanks to a heated national debate over Trump’s executive order banning entry into the United States for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from around the world. But of the group’s five Republicans, Amash is the only one who fully opposes Trump’s order, despite widespread criticism of the policy and the way it has been applied to people from the Middle East.
The split points to a deepening division between GOP partisans eager to applaud Trump’s actions and others who are debating whether and how to resist in the early days of the administration, when dissent could risk a public rebuke from the president.
Amash, who opposed Trump throughout the 2016 campaign, said some Republicans secretly oppose the immigration order but fear the political consequences of expressing their views.
“A number of colleagues have privately told me, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing,’ but they have difficulty then going on TV or in the press and saying the same thing,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with fear of the administration.”
The most confused position has come from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who partly defended Trump on Monday during an interview with CNN.
“I don’t want to say this was perfectly executed by any means and there has been some confusion, [but] I think we have to put it in perspective that it is temporary, that it does not target people per se based on religion,” Issa said of the ban.
“The president is trying to react to a crisis that has been ongoing for a period of time . . . I would rather deal with what the president’s doing and make adjustments than to have a president that does nothing. We need to deal with a massive refugee problem.”
Asked Wednesday by The Washington Post whether his heritage affects his view, Issa was a bit more conciliatory.
“As the grandson of Lebanese immigrants, of course this issue hits home,” he wrote in an email.
“I was, frankly, pretty disappointed by the way this ban was rolled out, especially before even the administration really knew all the details. In our district, we’ve been working on casework for two Iraqi interpreters who’ve needed help securing visas . . . I’d also say some of our local tech companies are confused and concerned about the impact that the ban will have on their employees.”
Trump’s order prompted chaos at U.S. airports, sparked widespread protests and drew a swift wave of legal challenges, plunging the nascent administration into chaos after only one full week in office. The policy affects an estimated 90,000 people, some of whom were barred from boarding flights or detained upon reaching the United States.
Amash has become a forceful critic of the executive order, primarily on legal grounds. But he said his family’s experience coming to the United States reinforces his opposition to Trump’s policy.
“My father became a refugee in 1948. They lived in [Ramallah, Palestine] until 1956 when a pastor and his wife from Muskegon, Michigan sponsored my dad’s family to come to the United States. They arrived in New York City like a lot of immigrant families and started a new life here. Now, my parents have a son in Congress. It’s really the American Dream,” he said.
His parents are “obviously very concerned” about Trump’s order, Amash said, adding: “Historically, our party has been welcoming to immigrants and refugees. My parents came here and became Republicans! They felt good about this country and felt good being Republicans.”
Louisiana Republican Rep. Ralph Abraham, who is one generation more removed from his Arab heritage, could not see the immigration issue more differently.
“I am behind Trump 100 percent on this,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday.
“My father was Lebanese — his parents actually came from Lebanon. He was, of course, born in the States. My mother was American, or non-Lebanese. So we have immigrants in our family, and I am very proud of that. But I come at the immigration issue as an American.”
Abraham, Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) and Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.), all of Lebanese descent, support Trump’s executive order.
“I am proud of my heritage and appreciate the contributions of our forefathers, but the future greatness of the United States depends upon the safety and security of Americans today,” Graves said in a statement Monday.
LaHood, son of former GOP congressman and secretary of transportation Ray LaHood, said the travel ban “should be viewed as protecting our homeland and its citizens.”
“The United States will continue to be a beacon of hope and opportunity for those looking to immigrate to a better way of life, but first and foremost, national security for our American citizens and our homeland must be priority No. 1,” he said in a statement Monday.
Neither Graves nor LaHood agreed to be interviewed for this article.
Abraham, who just began his second term, aligned himself with this view in a video posted to Twitter on Monday.
“It’s past time that we, President Trump, Congress, look out for the American people. President Trump is right when he says ‘America first.’ We must secure our borders. We must vet these immigrants that want to come here and do bad and nefarious things to us as American citizens,” he said.told the camera.
But in Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, Amash said his constituents have been harmed by the ban.
“In some cases you have people who just went overseas for a funeral or for a birthday and they want to come back to the United States, and now they’re in a difficult position,” he said.
“It affects people of all backgrounds, whether they’re Jewish, Christian or Muslim.”