Fred Clark of Slacktivist recently wrote about his childhood church’s sponsorship of a family of “boat people” during the Vietnamese refugee crisis of the late 1970s. His church, Clark explains, was white, conservative, and fundamentalist. His experience was not unique—evangelical and fundamentalist churches that were profoundly conservative and very Republican sponsored thousands of Vietnamese refugees during this period.
Clark ruminates on the seeming disconnect between those actions and the actions of these Christians’ ideological and cultural descendants today:
But today, in the 2018 America of the 81 percent and the 40 percent, the demonstration of national hospitality and American ideals that led so many of us to eagerly welcome the “boat people” — at least initially — seems completely gone. We no longer seem to have any sense of obligation to the refugees fleeing the countries we bomb and then abandon. The stunted counterfeit notions of “patriotism” we now perform or put on as a cheap costume make the words on the Statue of Liberty seem like a cruel joke. And the white evangelical churches that once embodied the ideals of “missionary” Christianity emphatically reject the idea that any of those people from the mission field be allowed to cross the sacred borders of our white nation.
We have — as Americans, as Christians — gotten smaller, crueler, uglier, and more selfish. We act like the world is a zero-sum game of musical chairs, and we’ll shiv anybody who we fear might be trying to take our seat.
What we have lost is massive and important. Getting it back won’t be easy.
There’s a piece missing from Clark’s analysis, however. There is a reason these churches supported these refugees, and it wasn’t because there was a universal pro-refugee zeal at the time. There wasn’t. It had everything to do with context.
Clark gets close to the underlying issue here:
We were seizing the chance to help desperate people … because doing so was a way of reasserting — of demonstrating — a needed sense of national greatness that had been wounded and diminished by the loss of the war in Vietnam and by Watergate and the hostage crisis in Iran.
And again he comes close, here:
In part, we felt that we had a special obligation to help people like this family. Our congregation had supported the war and so we were obliged to support the refugees fleeing the outcome of that war. That was obvious to us, and we recognized this was something we really had to do.
But even in these passages, Clark doesn’t quite hit on the underlying issue. This is completely understandable—Clark is sharing childhood memories, after all. This issue, however—immigration, and refugees—is one that I’ve studied on an academic level, which gives me a wider context within which to understand Clark’s childhood memories.
The Vietnamese boat people were fleeing Communism. The U.S. was embroiled in a decades-old Cold War with the Soviet Union. Championing the Vietnamese boat people offered a way for the United States to thumb its nose at the Soviet Union and its Communist satellites. Our reception of the boat people was not about making up for what we did during the Vietnam War. It was not that American conservatives were all refugee-friendly back then. Support for the boat people made a political point: See how horrible Communism is? Their people are literally fleeing from it.
We know this in part because of a simultaneous lack of support for another set of boat people—Haitian refugees. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, thousands of Haitians fled the human rights abuses of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, a U.S.-backed strongman dictator. These boat people did not receive the welcome that the Vietnamese did.
As a 1980 Washington Post article explained:
The government insists that they are here for “economic” reasons, which means they cannot stay. The Haitians and their defenders argue they are political refugees, entitled to asylum and the federal benefits that go to political immigrants.
Their defenders include a range of religious and civil rights groups, headed by the National Council of Churches (NCC), and an array of legislators, led by the Congressional Black Caucus, all of whom have called on President Carter to grant the Haitians asylum here.
The official White House position, that the Haitians are here solely for economic reasons, is under heavy attack in a federal court trial of a suit brought by the NCC and civil rights groups.Testimony this week has indicated that the Duvalier regime in Haiti, contrary to assertions by the Department of State, routinely tortores and imprisons returned boat people as enemies of the impoverished island nation’s government.
INS documents introduced in evidence suggested that Washington, seeking not to embarrass President-for-life Jean-Claude Duvalier, has sanctioned a skirting of the usual due-process procedures in handling the Haitians’ pleas for asylum.
The U.S. stood by Duvalier, despite gross human rights abuses, because he opposed Communism. At the time, opposing Communism made a leader a U.S. ally—regardless of things like human rights abuses, lack of free and fair elections, or political reigns of terror. All that mattered was opposition to Communism—and Duvalier met that qualification.
Accepting refugees from a U.S.-backed dictatorship wouldn’t have made said dictator alone look bad—it would have also made the U.S. look bad. It didn’t promote U.S. foreign policy or the national narrative of America as a bastion of freedom and democracy in the face of Communist dictatorship and oppression. In fact, it rather belied that narrative.
And so the U.S. refused to grant Haitian refugees refugee status.
Contrast this refusal of Haitian refugees with a third group of boat people—Cuban refugees. Like Vietnamese refugees, Cuban refugees were fleeing Communism—so the U.S. accepted them. Without question. Accepting Cuban refugees made Fidel Castro look bad, and by extension it made the Soviet Union look bad. The door was open to Cuban refugees.
In the end, then, it’s not so much that conservative, Republican churches have changed their approach to refugees as it is that there is no political payout for accepting Central American refugees. These individuals are not fleeing Communism. This does, of course, lead to a larger question—in a post-Cold War world, what has become our new national litmus test for accepting refugees? Do we have one? (Whether we should have one is a separate question.)
Anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S. seems to have ruled out embrace of refugees who are Muslim—even those fleeing an entity the U.S. considers an enemy. Consider the response to the Syrian refugee crisis, for example, when many conservative churches advocated for accepting Syrian refugees who were Christian, but not ones who were Muslim.
While ISIS loomed large in the national psyche, it did not reach the status of Communism as an existential boogeyman. Nevertheless, accepting refugees fleeing ISIS would seem at least somewhat similar to receiving refugees fleeing Communism. However, our “War on Terror” has often been framed as a conflict between Christianity and Islam, particularly on the Right. This colors how many Americans view refugees from the Middle East.
Christian refugees, good. Muslim refugees, bad.
No really, consider—throughout the Syrian refugee crisis, the Right made constant calls for accepting Christian refugees, and Christian refugees only. Many claimed that there was no way to know that a Muslim refugee was not actually an insurgent—recall the framing on the Right that posits the conflict as one of Christianity v. Islam. Accepting Christian refugees fleeing Syria offered another perk—it underscored a Christianity v. Islam framing of the conflict.
But what of Central American refugees? Where do they fit? The short answer is that they don’t. The U.S. does not have anything to gain politically by accepting Central American refugees. If anything, recognizing large numbers of refugees from countries racked by decades of U.S. meddling gives U.S. foreign policy a black eye.
Of course, most Americans know very little about the conflict that racks these countries and even less about the United States’ role in creating it. For these Americans—particularly those on the Right—the question of Central American refugees has become disconnected from foreign policy. In the era of Donald Trump, this question has become connected instead to white nationalism, and to xenophobic fears of racial decline.
In the end, then, this is not a story of conservative congregations moving from an acceptance of refugees in the late 1970s and early 1980s to opposition to refugees today. Instead, it is a story of a political Right that has grounded its approach to refugees not in human rights but in the refugees’ foreign policy implications—and, increasingly, in refugees’ implications to a white, Christian state—for the past half century and beyond.
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