American Politicians' Reactions to Refugees Echo Past Xenophobia: Which Side of History Do We Want to Be on?

11/20/2015 12:41 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2016

In recent meetings between anthropologists and refugees in Berlin, a young Syrian dentist described fleeing his home to escape death by bombs and guns from multiple sides, conscription by the military, and starvation due to the stoppage of vital services including food and water. Other Syrian refugees in the meetings - bilingual teachers fluent in English, linguists, physicians, and graduate students in various fields - described similar dangers they and their families had to escape in order to survive. These descriptions echo the reports from more than four million people who have had to flee Syria to escape mortal danger since the beginning of the civil war in 2011.

As American anthropologists living and researching in both the U.S. and Germany, we have met many refugees from Syria (and other locales) and observed how European countries have responded to the refugee crisis. Germany (half the size of Texas) has welcomed 200,000 Syrian refugees and plans to accept more. And even after the gruesome attacks in Paris last weekend, France (slightly larger than California) reasserted that it will continue to welcome Syrian refugees - 30,000 in the next two years.

By contrast, the United States has accepted less than 2,000 refugees to date and President Obama plans to accept only 10,000. Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a bill to stop Syrian refugees from entering the country and on Monday thirty U.S. Governors declared they would not allow Syrian refugees into their states. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said we should not accept Syrian refugees even if they are orphans under five years old. Texas Governor Greg Abbott wrote that Syrian refugees might take part in "terroristic activities." Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Texas Senator Ted Cruz indicated that the U.S. should take only Christian refugees. These reactions came quickly after a speculative report - now considered false - that a Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the bombers. In fact, all involved in the Paris attacks are reported to be EU citizens.

The reactions of these American politicians imply that civilians at risk of death should be turned away from protection simply because of their nationality, ethnicity or religion. They go against international agreements - including the Geneva Convention - and engage in dangerous forms of xenophobia, racism, and prejudice that the U.S. has learned from in the past.

At different moments in history, the United States has excluded people based on ethnicity, nationality and religion and later realized these prejudices were unfair and wrong. In the late 1930s, the U.S. turned away the St. Louis, a boat of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany due to fear that Jewish people might be communist sympathizers. These people - mostly children - were forced to return to Nazi Germany where many were killed in the Holocaust. After World War II, many Japanese American citizens were suddenly moved into internment camps, losing their homes and property. Later, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act, which apologized for the internment and admitted that those government actions were based on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." Similar forms of racism, prejudice and fear have been mobilized at different times in U.S. history against Latin American U.S. citizens, Italian Americans, and Irish Americans, to name a few. In recent years, the police killings of unarmed Black and Latino Americans has led to a national conversation on the persistence of racism in the U.S. and what should be done to change this.

Yet, the reactions of many American politicians to Syrian refugees claim they should be excluded simply because of their ethnicity, nationality or religion. Equating an ethnic, national, or religious group with terrorism is a dangerous form of xenophobia, similar in certain ways to that mobilized against Jewish refugees during World War II and Japanese Americans after World War II. This xenophobia stokes the fears of American citizens in the wake of the Paris attacks and many politicians may be seeking support and votes by making such statements. However, these responses erase the realities of the many Syrian refugees we have met in Germany and risk repeating the mistakes of the past. In addition, they disregard the stringent background and security checks refugees go through before being admitted - from 18 months to several years including investigations by each of the State Department, the Department of Defense, the FBI, Homeland Security and more.

In the midst of a humanitarian crisis - especially one in which the U.S. has played an active military role, we have a responsibility to welcome those fleeing for their lives. Indeed, from a global perspective, it seems the U.S. should welcome more than the 10,000 it has offered to receive.

At this moment with people fleeing for their lives, which side of history do we want to be on?

Seth M. Holmes is Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology and Public Health at the University of California Berkeley and Faculty Fellow in the International Research Center Work and the Life Cycle in Global History at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

Jennifer Burrell is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the State University of New York Albany.

Heide Castaneda is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Florida and Faculty Affiliate of the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Freie Universität Berlin.