When I graduated from college in 1994, Elie Wiesel gave our commencement speech. I was excited to listen to a man whose books I read and whose words and life continually influenced how I thought about the world.
I can’t tell you everything he said that day, but I do remember how much he emphasized actively fighting against hatred to support humanity at all levels. One of my college newsletters quoted his speech, “Our taste—if not our passion—for humanity compels us to leave the classroom and go wherever people suffer from disease, ignorance, or oppression, whenever a person or group of persons needs reassurance, faith, and peace.” These words still ring true today.
I grew up in a family that celebrated cultural diversity. My mother spent almost ten years in Ethiopia. I had cousins, aunts and uncles who lived all over the world—the Philippines, Japan, China, Indonesia—and I was always taught (and shown) the importance of being part of a larger global community. I was raised to believe that I should celebrate cultures, religions, and beliefs that were different than mine.
As a child, I heard the rhetoric of the United States being a melting pot. A country that accepted anyone and that was a refuge for those in crisis. Yet, as I grew older, I learned that this was not always the case.
This weekend, after President Trump signed the executive order banning refugees from predominantly Muslim nations, my cousin posted the story of my Aunt, Kari Toriesen-Malcom, who came to the United States as a Norwegian refugee from China after World War II. She and her family, missionaries, were interned in Shandung Compound, a Japanese concentration camp for expatriates. My aunt came to the United States to attend college. She worked odd jobs and cleaned houses to pay for her education and later became an American citizen.
Unless you are an American Indian whose ancestors were born here, your family has stories of how they came here. You may have stories of family members immigrating to the United States for a chance at a better life. You may have stories of family members who were refugees. You may have stories of family members taken from their homes and brought to this country as slaves. Whatever your story, very few of us can actually claim America as our ancestral home.
Therefore, I am embarrassed by what is happening now in the United States. The present administration refuses to learn from the troubling mistakes of our past. They were shameful mistakes and not something to be proud of as a nation.
For example, we passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, barring people from China to immigrate here. We passed the Immigrant Act of 1924 which limited the number of immigrants from each country into the United States and completely excluded Asian immigrants, with a focus on the people of Japan.
In 1939, we decided not to let the 937 Jewish refugees traveling aboard The St. Louis who were fleeing Hitler’s Third Reich into our country. We sent them back to Europe and told them to wait and qualify for immigrant visas. Many of the passengers were taken in by other European countries, but it is estimated that 254 died during the Holocaust. That is 254 lives we could have saved.
We have also lived through times when we brought in refugees and accepted people to be part of our country. We took in more than 10,000 Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s. We took in 125,000 Cuban refugees who arrived by boats in 1980. President Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980, created to help individuals displaced from their homeland. Even conservative President Ronald Reagan stated in a 1984 debate, "I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally."
Sadly, our present administration doesn’t see the value in supporting immigrants and refugees and giving amnesty to those who need it most. And the argument that detaining and denying refugees entrance to the United States will stop terrorism has no basis in fact. Since September 11, 2001 it is estimated that we have resettled 784,000 refugees from around the world in the United States. And, of those 784,000 people only three have been arrested for planning terrorist activities.
Remember, a refugee is “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence.” In Syria, people are fleeing a civil war that has been happening since 2011. They are living in a war zone with bombings and street fighting. Since 2011, in Syria almost half a million civilians have been murdered and 10 million people displaced from their homes by the Syrian President. Why are we choosing not to support families and children living in a war zone?
Over and over statistics and history show us that refugees are usually the least likely people to commit crimes and acts of terrorism and that most refugees come here and work. Yet, many in our government continue to deny refugees a place to call home. This week I ask all of you to stand against this ban. I ask you to think about our history. To read what it means to be a refugee. To think about the times in your life when you or someone in your family has needed refuge. I challenge you to think about how you want to treat those most in need and how you want to be treated. And, do something about what is happening in our country right now. Write your congress people, join a protest, open your home to those who need one, support organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, and above all listen to the stories of the people. Remember the stories of your families, and fight for America to continue to be a Nation of Immigrants.
Rebekah Buchanan is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.