The Wages of Fear

On February 19, 1942 Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued an executive order to give military commanders the right to declare certain parts of the United States military areas, allowing them to deport and incarcerate anyone they so chose. Over 120,000 Japanese-American citizens living on the west coast were rounded up, removed from their homes, and placed in internment camps. In 1944 the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of this order. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter appointed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to study this decision, which concluded that little evidence existed to warrant such a wholesale action, instead pointing to racism, war hysteria, and a lack of political leadership as the cause, and ordered reparations payments of $20,000 per individual incarcerated. Although the Supreme Court decision still stands, standards of decency do too.

With the hindsight of history we recognize that these actions were wrong, but could this kind of sweeping racism occur today? We have clear evidence that we are not far from this mentality 74 years later. Some Republican presidential candidates are shouting over each other that if elected they would prevent Syrian refugees from entering the United States--no exceptions for families with small children or single mothers. The United States helped to create the Syrian crisis in the Middle East by destabilizing Iraq, but that responsibility is not acknowledged in this fear calculus. After the Paris attacks at the end of 2015 Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz argued that they would only allow in Christian immigrants, and Ben Carson and Donald Trump said no Syrians should be admitted into the United States.

Who are these potentially dangerous people? The destabilization of Syria has produced 12.8 million Syrians that need humanitarian assistance. More than 50% of Syria's population has been displaced; 4 million have left Syria. Of the refugees referred by the United Nations to the United States 67% have been women and children. These people are attempting to leave Syria to escape the constant fighting and decimated infrastructure--schools have been destroyed, hospitals bombed, children recruited or forced to fight. Families have no food, no clothing; children are dying of starvation. The world has not seen a refugee crisis of this magnitude since World War II.

We Americans like to think of ourselves as a generous, pluralistic society, welcoming and friendly, but xenophobia runs strong here--and this is not a new phenomenon. When my grandmother, an Armenian refugee from Turkish oppression, arrived in Syracuse in 1920, she went to a neighbor to ask for a glass of water to give her small daughter, my mother, a drink since their water had not yet been turned on. The neighbor asked her to go around to the back, opened the back door just enough to allow her hand to fit through with a jelly glass of water and said, "Don't bother to return the glass." But Eliza, my grandmother, was not so easily intimidated. Once when she was traveling on a trolley with her husband and their children, a woman stared disapprovingly at the family, saying to her female companion, "Italians!" My grandmother looked at my grandfather and with a haughty gesture pointed to the two women and said, "Irish!" I grew up as an ethnic kid in a white neighborhood in central New York. I've been asked if I am Spanish, Italian, east Indian, native American, Jewish, even Irish but never Armenian because no one had heard of Armenia. When I was a kid, everyone wanted to be tall and blond, but somewhere around college age I noticed that looking "ethnic" brought attention, some of it unwanted. One evening when I was a sophomore in college, I was walking down South Crouse Avenue to my apartment from the Syracuse University campus when two tall light-haired young men approached me, one sliding in on my left and one my right. Immediately the game started: "Hey, you, with the long dark hair, wanna go somewhere and talk?" as if any woman wouldn't be weirded out being corralled by two men on a dark street at 7:30 at night. I was terrified into silence, then anger. I began to put my four years of French to work, hoping to confuse them into leaving me alone: "Je ne parle pas l'anglais. Parlez vous francais, s'il vous plait?" My fourth year of French ended disastrously in my only C + in college because I stopped working after my very short male teacher called out to me and to the other 4 foot 10 1/2 inch girl in the class as we walked into French IV a minute late one day, "Hey class, the pygmies have arrived." But I remembered what I needed this night. "Pardon, je ne comprend pas." The guy on my right said, "Do you think she really doesn't understand us?" Their armor chink encouraged me, and I kept it up. They soon slid off into the darkness.

I have no idea if this was racial profiling or if anyone short, female, and defenseless would have fit the bill, but I did wonder if it was easier for those two guys to imagine harassing someone who didn't look like their sisters.

Of course TSA agents get to racially profile daily. I had taken my mother to Washington, DC to see her brother who was dying of cancer. We were at post 9/11 Washington National Airport waiting to board. The aircraft, one of those loud four-engine prop planes was ready, and passengers were being called to embark. My aged mother leaned on me and on her cane as we walked together to the airport door. She was allowed through it; I was not. I was taken into a back room, and while everyone else was on the plane, I was thoroughly searched and interrogated by three agents. "Why are you here? Where are you going? Why are you traveling? Who are you traveling with?" They looked grim, like they were sure, absolutely sure, that I had a bomb somewhere on my person. Of course, no reason was given for their behavior. I thought of my elderly mother on the plane. If they don't let me go, how would she get home? Will the plane wait for these agents to decide that I am not a terrorist? Were they convinced I was a danger to self and others because I look Middle Eastern? Is this what my black colleagues face every day of their lives?

In late 2015 thirty-one United States governors opposed allowing Syrian refugees into their states, knowing full well that only the federal government can legislate refugee placement. Between 2011 and December 2015 the United States had admitted under 2000 Syrian refugees into our country, and the great majority of those referred to us by the UN have been women and children under 12. Canada has admitted 36,300. President Obama has proposed that the US take in 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, but Congress, responsible for approving funding, has voted to pass a bill that would require that the government certify that no refugee admitted would pose a security risk to the United States, which would slow the process nearly to a standstill. Of course, politicians are responding to their constituents: 53% of Americans do not want to take in Syrian refugees. This is consistent with the past: in 1948 a Gallup poll demonstrated that 57% of Americans did not want to admit 10,000 European immigrants in their state, and the disapproval ratings for taking in Vietnamese and Cuban immigrants were even higher. Cedrick Argueta, a child of immigrants from the heavily Latino Lincoln High School in LA, is one of only 12 students in the country who got a perfect score on his calculus AP exam this year. Yes, he is talented in math, but he attributes his score to his hard work studying two hours a day. Immigrants are hungry to succeed. That's why they are here. They provide the fresh thinking and energy countries need to innovate. I know from my family and those of other Armenians who saw the United States as their savior from certain death that immigrants work hard. They take nothing for granted. And these are the people we want to build a wall to keep out. These are the people one Republican would "carpet bomb until the sands are glowing" because, of course, bombs kill all in their path, small Syrian children as well as ISIS leaders. These are the people we want to condemn to lives in perennial limbo in squalid camps because we our fear is greater than our compassion. An entire generation of children will not become educated as a result. Who will they be when they grow up? Will they be the doctors that save their people, the lawyers that help find legal solutions to territorial disputes, the teachers that help children to grow out of poverty or will they grow up to act out on us the rage that our oppression and ignorance helped create?

When will we learn? As we sow so shall we reap.