In 1939, the German ocean liner St Louis and its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish refugees, were turned away from the port of Miami and sent back to Europe. Of those passengers, 254 were murdered in the Holocaust. The US government turned away those refugees, so heartbreakingly close to safety – and also restricted Jewish immigration and instituted new vetting procedures – because of rampant overblown fears that the Nazis might smuggle spies and saboteurs in among the Jewish refugees.
On Friday, which was Holocaust Remembrance Day, the White House put out a statement that failed to mention the 6 million Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis. Hours later, Donald Trump signed an executive order suspending all refugee resettlement for 120 days and indefinitely suspending the resettlement of refugees from Syria.
In addition to banning Syrian refugees, the president ordered a ban on all entries of the nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, for 90 days, and provided that the ban might be extended and that additional countries might be added to that list.
Trump’s executive order on Friday is a major step toward carrying out his campaign threat to ban the admission of Muslims into the US. Tellingly, Friday’s order authorizes the homeland security secretary to admit refugees on a “case by case” basis, notwithstanding the 120-day suspension, for people of a minority religion in their home countries. Trump announced during his press conference that his order will help Christians to enter the US. In effect, Trump has barred Muslims from entering the US, while favoring the entry of Christians. One of the tenets upon which our country was founded is that religion is our own business and not the government’s.
We have freedom of belief. We do not have religious litmus tests for participation in society. Trump’s order is anathema to those founding principles. It violates the first amendment’s establishment clause, which prohibits the government from preferring or disfavoring any religion. Trump’s anti-Muslim policy also violates the equal protection clause, the part of the 14th amendment that guarantees that everyone is entitled to equal protection under the law.
Trump’s orders are immoral as well as unconstitutional. He is barring the entry of modern-day counterparts of the passengers of the St Louis – children injured in Syria’s terrible and brutal civil war, who are at imminent risk of being killed. And Trump’s order is a slap in the face to the millions of Americans who uphold our best traditions of welcoming the stranger seeking refuge.
Trump’s policy is also foolish. Former senior US military commanders, diplomats and homeland security officials, both Democrats and Republicans, have publicly stated that a block on refugees from Syria and other Muslim countries is contrary to US security interests because it feeds the Isis narrative that there is a war between Islam and the west and that Muslims are not welcome in the US.
Moreover, as demonstrated in ACLU litigation last year, only the most vulnerable Syrian refugees are resettled in the US and that only occurs after vigorous security screening by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Department of Defense, the Department of State and US Customs and Border Protection. Among those who may barred from entering the US is Hameed Khalid Darweesh, an Iraqi man who worked as an interpreter for the US army’s 101st airborne division. According to Brandon Friedman, a former Obama administration official who commanded a platoon during the invasion of Iraq, the Iraqi man “spent years keeping US soldiers alive in combat in Iraq”. He arrived at New York’s JFK airport on Friday evening and was detained.
The ACLU along with the International Refugee Assistance Project, the National Immigration Law center and Yale Law School’s Jerome N Frank Legal Services Organization, as well as the firm Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, filed suit early this morning.
We are a diverse society, built largely on the sweat and ingenuity of immigrants and refugees. American Muslims, immigrants and US-born alike, are part of the fabric of this nation and part of what makes America great. As US businesses, investors and universities have pointed out, American Muslims are our neighbors, friends and colleagues. They are us. Trump’s ban separates American families and deprives our country of the contributions that these newcomers, and their children and grandchildren, will make as Americans.
Nearly 80 years ago, US government officials, backed by the deliberately stoked fears of refugees, turned refugees away at our shores and sent men, women and children back to their deaths.
Today Americans look back in shame at that moral, political and legal failure – even as our president repeats the mistakes of the past. We are better than today’s executive order, and we must rise up and insist that America live up to our best ideals and not our worst fears.