In 1939, Irmgard Köppel, her husband Josef, and their 14 month-old daughter Judith attempted to flee Nazi Germany for the United States, but were turned away at the border and forced to return to Germany. Irmgard and Josef later died at Auschwitz. Judith, however, survived, because she was harbored, at great personal risk, along with five other Jewish children, by French gentiles, Joseph and Eliette Enard.
The question that Trump’s travel and refugee bans asks us as a country is whether we will be more like the U.S. authorities who sent the Köppels and thousands of other Jewish refugees to their deaths, or more like the Enards, who risked their lives to save those of a different faith and nationality.
Trump’s executive order actually does two things, which are being conflated by many critics. First, the administration banned for 90 days entry into the United States by citizens of seven countries (Libya, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen). It is not really a Muslim ban, since it applies to non-Muslim citizens of those countries, and does not include Muslims from other countries. However, there is little doubt that it is motivated by a degree of anti-Muslim animus. (The order may also run afoul of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which bars immigration discrimination on the basis of national origin).
The seven affected countries were already on a list, drafted by the Obama administration, and codified by Congress as part of the Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, whose travelers require stricter scrutiny. As a matter of policy, it makes little sense, since it does not cover countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where there is a real radical Islamicist presence, while including countries like Iraq, where troops are fighting alongside Americans to battle ISIS. The number of Americans killed in this country by citizens of those seven countries has been precisely zero. (And are we really issuing many visas in Yemen these days?) If the policy had been better designed, implemented, and communicated, it would still have been bad policy, but it would probably have ignited less outrage.
But, Trump overruled the Department of Homeland Security, to include green card holders, other permanent lawful residents, and possibly even those with dual citizenship (interpretations differ), provisions which certainly appear to violate U.S. law, and are now being walked back by DHS Secretary Kelly. And, by providing no lead time for implementation, the administration insured chaos at airports nationwide. Those blocked from entry or detained included doctors, scientists, and artists, as well as interpreters and others who had assisted US troops. Already, ISIS has gleefully publicized the order as an example of the US “war on Islam.”
The second part of the executive order is even less defensible. That part indefinitely suspended refugee programs for Syrians and others. Compounding matters, the order says that if the programs resumed, preference will be given to Christians and other non-Muslim refugees. This callous indifference toward the suffering of thousands of men, women, and children caught up in a war that we did much to precipitate, can only be explained by anti-Muslim bias.
We are told, of course, that terrorists may try to use the refugee program to infiltrate our country. One notes that, in 1939, similar arguments were made, including a front page story in the New York Times, to suggest that Nazi spies might infiltrate Jewish refugee groups. But more importantly, there is little evidence that Islamic terrorists are actually using the refugee programs to enter the US. Indeed, if a terrorist wanted to come to the United States, going through the ponderous, bureaucratic, and heavily vetted refugee program is among the least efficient and effective ways to do so. In fact, since 1975, just three Americans have been killed by refugees. (The three refugees in question were Cuban, not Muslim.) Overall, your chances of being killed by a refugee are 1 in 3.64 billion annually.
No one can guarantee that that record will continue. Indeed, I expect that sooner or later, a Muslim refugee may commit a terrorist atrocity. But, perfect security is never a guarantee, and should not be our overriding goal. We should not allow fear to make America other than what it is. There are values more important than safety.
The United States current accepts less than one half of one percent of the world’s refugees. For a country built on immigration, compassion, and justice — that holds itself out as the beacon of liberty in this world — we can and should do better. This should not – and cannot – be a partisan issue. Rather, this is a time for moral choosing. Every American should speak out.
Joseph and Eliette Enard are memorialized at Yad Vashem as two of the “Righteous among the Nations.” When our reckoning comes, will we be counted on the side of the Enards, or will we let fear and bigotry rule our hearts, our lives, and our country.