Last Friday, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, many Americans reflected on the lesson of the St. Louis. A passenger liner carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees from Hamburg to Havana in 1939, the St. Louis was turned away from Cuba and from the United States. Its desperate passengers were victims of both anti-Semitism at home and an anti-immigrant, nativist national mood in the countries they hoped would take them in. Forced to return to Europe, more than 200 of the ship’s passengers ultimately died in World War II, a number of them in Hitler’s concentration camps.
Also last Friday, just hours after releasing a statement pledging “to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good,” U.S. President Donald J. Trump signed a sweeping executive order that completely shut down refugee admissions for at least three months, increased the barriers to admission, and instituted a de facto religious preference for refugees that discriminates against Muslims. Before dawn on Saturday, the United States was detaining refugees and documented immigrants in shackles at U.S. airports.
What has swiftly become clear is that President Trump intends to carry out all of his campaign promises: an expanded deportation force, a wall on the southern border, and draconian changes to the treatment of refugees, asylum seekers, and other immigrants. These policies are guided not by national security or common sense, but rather by antipathy towards Muslims and Latinos, fearmongering about “criminal aliens,” and a deep skepticism toward people in need of protection.
With these early policy declarations so in line with the campaign’s ugly and false rhetoric about immigrants and refugees, it’s obvious the next four years will bring immense suffering for millions of immigrants, refugees, displaced people, and their families. As a result, those of us who are able must work even harder in support of truth, evidence, and the fundamental humanity of asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants of all races and religions.
At Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), we know what refugees and asylum seekers have lived through. We document the horrors of war and persecution. The volunteer health professionals in our Asylum Network conduct evaluations and painstakingly catalogue the physical and psychological scars of asylum seekers in order to provide evidence to asylum courts.
Who are these refugees and asylum seekers? They are families who fled Assad’s barrel bombs in Aleppo. They are Honduran children subjected to extreme violence in their homes and communities. They are Iraqi translators who risked their lives to work with the U.S. military. They are people who have survived some of the most extreme evils on earth, and we must not turn away from them now.
While the Trump Administration asserts that security concerns are at the root of the president’s actions and uses the specter of violence as a weapon against refugees and immigrants, we know that the United States is already quite adept at screening people in the country’s refugee resettlement program – the process takes two to three years and includes multiple security screens by U.S. federal agencies. Refugees are among the most intensely scrutinized immigrants to the United States, and there is no need to choose between security and doing what is right.
Today, a record number of people are displaced from their homes by war and violence – in fact, more people are displaced currently than during the period following the Second World War. The United States must lead when it comes to refugees, not retreat out of fear. The country is strong enough to carefully and securely vet refugees, and compassionate enough to know that it can’t shrink from this duty.
The president’s actions this week present a disturbing picture of the administration’s planned assault on all immigrants, setting out a terrifyingly broad scope of enforcement to limit the right to seek asylum and to undermine the rights of immigrant communities. PHR stands with refugees, we stand with asylum seekers, and we will continue our work to document the human rights violations that lead so many to seek protection in the United States.