In the News: “What Is Best About Ourselves: We Welcome Others and Grow Together” FXB on U.S. Immigration Policy

The January 27 executive order restricting travel, immigration, and refugee entry to the United States signaled major policy changes in those areas. Despite the recent stay of the immigration order upheld by the 9th District Court of Appeals, litigation is likely to continue and the attitudes implicit in these orders are likely to reappear in policy. FXB’s director Jennifer Leaning and director of research Jacqueline Bhabha have recorded a podcast and a FacebookLive video, responding to questions about these policy shifts.

“We Are All Immigrants”: February 2

In the fifteen-minute February 2 podcast curated by Harvard T .H. Chan School of Public Health staff, Dr. Leaning and Professor Bhabha spoke about how the order harms the international image of the United States, violates its core values (and treaty obligations), and could create severe hardship for tens of thousands, perhaps millions of people. Dr. Leaning discussed how the order sends a message to Muslims around the world (not just from the seven named states) that they are no longer welcome in the United States. The effect will likely diminish their desire to come to the United States, depriving us, in Dr. Leaning’s words, of “the talent, knowledge, wisdom, and perspectives they bring to our nation.”

Professor Bhabha, an international human rights lawyer, questioned the order’s constitutionality, saying that it went against several constitutional principles, including the barring of discrimination. She also viewed the executive order as a problematic strategy for achieving the new administration’s goals. She described it as “a testament of weakness, not of strength”; she pointed out that the executive order “shows insecurity, it shows fear, it shows a very narrow, nativist, limited approach to a complex global world.”  She also suggested that it failed as a strategy for creating economic wealth because it isolated the United States “from potential partners, clients, customers, and global collaborators.”

Dr. Leaning and Professor Bhabha discussed the plight of Syrian refugees. Millions remain in host countries in the region–that is, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and to a lesser extent, Iraq and Egypt.  The refugees struggle for food, to get their children education, and to find work—some of them have been in this situation for over six years. Dr. Leaning spoke of their “yearning for a better life,” saying that “the potential contributions that they could make to our country are myriad.”  Professor Bhabha referenced a recent FXB blog on how the cold weather in Greece has compounded a dire situation, with 60,000 people trapped in the country who do not want to be there but have nowhere else to go. She added that the executive order intensifies their sense of being trapped. She mentioned the despair of those in countries neighboring Syria who have been waiting patiently to be relocated from extremely overcrowded, harsh conditions—for them, the executive order is another blow.

Dr. Leaning also expressed concern for people of color in the United States. She fears that some people may feel that President Trump’s action gives them permission to speak, hate, and act violently against those whom they identify as the Other. She encouraged institutions to combat that tendency and to educate those who are feeling so hostile toward these others who are now ours within our midst.

She reminded listeners that “everyone in the United States is an immigrant, except for Native Americans (who centuries ago probably migrated here).” The story of immigration is part of the American ethos. Among other factors, she said, that story “is what makes us such a vigorous, essentially optimistic, and accomplished country” and “what makes us so unusual.” She concluded the podcast by contending the executive order denies what is best about Americans: “We welcome others and grow together. “

“Do Not Lose Hope”: Facebook Live February 6

FXB director Jennifer Leaning and FXB director of research Jacqueline Bhabha reprised some of these themes in a thirty-minute Facebook Live session moderated by Noah Levitt. Available on the Harvard Chan School Facebook page and on Harvard’s main Facebook page, the video has already been viewed by more than 19,000 people as of February 11.

Dr. Leaning discussed how the instability of the situation around the future and enforcement of the order has cast “a pall over doctors, scientists, and scholars with green cards or shorter term visas,” many of whom the United States depends on for fulfilling healthcare needs. She mentioned one effect of the fear and confusion was that many international scholars were refusing to come to the United States and that more and more international global health and similar meetings would be held outside the United States to insure accessibility. Professor Bhabha discussed “‘extreme vetting’ as code for making it harder for refugees to enter”—not because they were unqualified or dangerous but because they were not wanted.  In response to a question of whether the order would make Americans safer, she cited a recent commentary from the Migration Policy Institute, which said that of the 784,000 refugees resettled in the United States from September 11, 2001 through 2015, only three have been arrested for planning terrorist activities.

Both Bhabha and Leaning reiterated the disastrous humanitarian situation for Syrian refugees, with Syria’s neighbors who are their primary hosts struggling to cover refugees’ basic needs. Dr. Leaning pointed out that in Lebanon more than one million (easily 20 percent of the population) are Syrian refugees, which long term could change the religious and political balance of the country. Professor Bhabha mentioned the months of litigation that are likely ahead, asking “To what extent will this country’s proud tradition of tolerance continue?” Dr. Leaning ended with an affirmation of those affected by these circumstances, “For those who are displaced, we are connected to you and do not want you to lose hope.”