Azad Essa: US bigotry didn't start with Trump

Protesters rally against President Donald Trump’s refugee ban at Miami International Airport. Picture: AP

Protesters rally against President Donald Trump’s refugee ban at Miami International Airport. Picture: AP

Published Feb 1, 2017


In truth, Trump's Muslim ban is little different to what has come to pass in America over the past 200 to 300 years, says Azad Essa.

In one of his first acts as president, Donald Trump signed an executive order that bans people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US.

The “Muslim ban” as it’s come to be known is an extraordinary development.

Preventing nationals from Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Iran, Iraq and Syria from entering the country for the next three months, it also bans Syrian refugees until further notice.

The order has sent shock waves across the world and triggered an enormous outpouring of opposition within the US.

Like Trump, not only is the order irrational and bigoted, it also seeks to scapegoat complex geopolitics into a matter of religion and nationality.

But in truth, the ban is little different to what has come to pass in America over the past 200 to 300 years.

To start, the US massacred and destroyed the Native American population despite it presenting itself as a “land of immigrants”.

Understanding the country’s historical approach to immigration and refugees tells us a little about white privilege and entitlement in the US today.

In 1790, the US Naturalisation Act limited citizenship to white persons, thus excluding African Americans and Native Americans.

It was only in 1868 that blacks were given citizenship, while Native Americans gained citizenship only in 1924.

When it came to other communities, like the Chinese, they were also made scapegoats in the 19th century (they were blamed for taking jobs even then) and banned from entering the country or becoming citizens.

The Chinese could become citizens only in 1943.

Even boats carrying refugees, mostly Jews, during World War II, were turned away from the US.

The US today may be Israel’s closest friend, financier and partner, but it was no friend to Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany.

It had a quota of 26000 Jewish refugees a year, and just 25percent of the quota is said to have been filled.

Remember, some 6million perished in the Holocaust.

Similar things happened in 1980, with the banning of the Iranians from entering the country, and in 1987, HIV-positive persons were also barred from the US.

The banning of those with HIV was a law borne out of a naturally toxic bout of homophobia and xenophobia towards people of colour, particularly from the Caribbean and Africa. It was lifted only in 2009.

Today, the Syrian refugee crisis is considered the biggest of our time, with some 5million Syrians refugees registered by the UN this month. Even before Trump’s ban, the US was hostile to Syrian refugees and only 12000 have been admitted into the country since the war began in 2012. Moreover the seven countries banned by Trump came from a list originally created by Obama.

The only difference is the severity of the measures.

It is not as if travelling from Yemen, Somalia or Iran was ever an easy exercise.

But what we have witnessed so far in opposition to the ban - protests taking place outside airports around the country against religious-profiling, the mobilisation of pro bono lawyers offering services to both those who were being turned away at airports and civil employees who refused to turn away passengers from the aforementioned countries; there has been an awakening of sorts.

But it will take a lot more, for even if this ban is lifted - the fight against xenophobia is far from over. The American public needs to take a long hard look at itself. With or without the ban, this is how the US has treated the rest of the world for the longest time.

While Trump is like a Marvel Comic villain come to life, the keeping out of “undesirables” has been the signature of US immigration policy for the past 100 years.

Together with the Muslim ban, Trump has also ordered the building of the wall with Mexico and placed a ban on federal money to international groups performing abortion outside the US. Former presidents Ronald Reagan and George W Bush signed off the same ban on abortions, while Bill Clinton and Obama rescinded it.

Here, the choice of others, is literally a spat between Democrats and Republicans.

Separately, the ruling on Muslims, the ban on abortion and the Mexico wall may seem like different measures chasing different goals, but together they are linked congenitally by an American arrogance that wasn’t born with Trump.

* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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