One of the hardest parts of my job is sifting through the rhetoric surrounding politically heated issues, and trying to figure out the reality of a situation everyone is shouting about. Politics can flare tempers like few other things, particularly when political issues directly affect the safety and wellbeing of real people who need help.
Let there be no mistake: There are refugees fleeing their nations of origin in search of help, or safety, and we cannot approach this issue without first addressing that human factor. These are real men, women, and children who felt they had no alternative but to seek a new life in a new land. Many of them are good people who deserve a chance at a good life just like anyone else.
But, invariably, some among them are bad.
I know passionate lefties will choose to tout statistics showing that no refugees have been arrested in the U.S. for acts of terror in the modern age, while passionate righties will draw attention to attacks carried out by refugees in other Western nations, asking if we need to join that list before taking action. It’s this balancing act, this tightrope walk over the chasm of anarchy and tyranny, that makes democracy so challenging, and freedom so tenuous.
Make no mistakes about freedom, either, ladies and gentlemen. Our grip on liberty is never as tight as complacency would have us assume, and we must remain ever vigilant to ensure the freedoms we inherit as Americans get passed on to the next generation of Americans, regardless of how comfortable we are with their religious, social, or political leanings.
So where does that leave us on President Trump’s recent executive order regarding refugees and immigration? Are we beginning to falter in our democratic balancing act, doomed to fall from the tightrope and into the fires of tyranny? Or is Donald Trump’s controversial order in keeping with U.S. law and international norms? Are the protestors on the left being alarmist, or are those showing their support for this order helping to usher in a new age of systemic prejudices?
Well, through the objective scope of history, this move doesn’t seem all that radical. In 2011, President Barack Obama, who hails from the same party that is now decrying President Trump’s “ban on Muslims,” halted the processing of all refugees from Iraq for six months due to concerns regarding national security. They did so because a number of al-Qaeda-linked terrorists were discovered operating in Bowling Green, Kentucky—some of whom had gone through refugee processing and were permitted entrance into the United States.
Of course, in the time since, the screening process has undergone a revamp, which had to include a thorough analysis of the processes in place. Mr. Trump’s new executive order is calling upon the affected departments to undergo that analysis once again. Although the scope of this order is broader (in the number of nations listed by name), the intent and execution is very similar to that of Mr. Obama’s: It’s a temporary freeze on processing while we assess and address the issues at hand.
Similarly controversial is the limit President Trump has placed on the number of refugees coming into the United States. Under this new rule, only 50,000 refugees will be allowed within our borders this year, a dramatic drop from the 110,000 allowed by the Obama administration. But again, this figure is a bit misleading, as President Obama only called for the increase to 110,000 late last year, and it was an increase from the number permitted throughout the vast majority of his tenure as president. Prior to that, beginning in 2013, Obama had limits in place allowing for a total of only 70,000 refugees. He upped that number to 85,000 in 2015 and to 110,000 in 2016. It wasn’t a prejudiced policy, it was a logistical one—just as President Trump’s purports to be.
Australia’s policy for refugees has been hailed by some as a harsh necessity in a harsher world, while others have claimed portions of their policy are inhumane. Many refugees seeking asylum in Australia find themselves held in camps on one of two isolated Pacific islands, detained until their applications can be processed. If granted asylum, they still won’t reach Australian shores, instead being re-routed to surrounding nations that agree to accept them. The conditions on the island camps are said to be deplorable, but the system in place—despite those blemishes on the program—is widely supported by Australian citizens.
Australia’s hard line on permitting refugees from reaching their shores has proven statistically effective. Under a strict refugee policy, Australia saw only a handful of people reach their mainland shores and gain asylum. But in 2007, a new party took power in the continent nation. By 2009, thousands of refugees were reaching Australian shores, and by 2010, nearly 7,000 refugees landed down under, up from only 57 in 2007. Australia saw a return to strict refugee policies in 2013, and although many have called for a change in the way refugees are treated in their island detainment camps, a 2015 study found that the majority of Australians felt the strict policy (if not its execution) was good for the country, with more than a full quarter of the population feeling as though it wasn’t strict enough.
In the interest of full disclosure, however, it must be noted that even amid Australia’s strict refugee and immigration policies, they have agreed to accept 12,000 Syrian refugees this year, a number drawing a stark contrast between their methodology and Mr. Trump’s indefinite freezing of Syrian refugees being accepted into the United States.
Now, I’m not arguing that this new executive order couldn’t set a dangerous precedent if free from critical analysis. In fact, I think it’s a good thing that Donald Trump’s controversial decisions are garnering attention from an American populace that was likely largely unaware of these policies under the Obama administration due to the mainstream media not working to stir the public into a fervor with each new piece of legislation. When President Obama accused NATO nations of failing to live up to their obligations, the media didn’t care. When Donald Trump did it, it was front-page news. When President Obama restricted refugees from largely Muslim nations, the media didn’t care. When Donald Trump does it, it’s a “ban on Muslims.”
Both President Obama and the Australian government didn’t put strict rules in place regarding refugees entering their respective nations out of prejudice, they did so under serious consideration for the safety of their own people, the safety of those seeking asylum, and an understanding that the world can’t always be sunshine and rainbows. In fact, sometimes, those in power have to make hard decisions to benefit the many, even at the expense of the few.
I can’t say that Donald Trump’s executive order is harmless, or that he signed it in good faith, or even that it will work—only time can tell any of that—but what I can say is that he’s operating within precedents established in some cases by the very party now demonizing him for the decision, and that policies that closely resemble what he is attempting to lay out have proven successful, if not controversial, for other free, democratic nations.
As we continue the dangerous tightrope walk of freedom, we have to remain ever vigilant. It can be argued that Obama’s mistakes can’t lay the groundwork for Trump’s successes, but when we fail to recognize the objective reasoning behind a controversial decision, choosing instead to vilify the man who made it, we’re not improving our discourse, we’re harming it.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press