Refugees vs. Enemies – We’ve Done this Before

Refugees vs. Enemies – We’ve Done this Before November 17, 2015

There is no getting around the fact that the terrorists in Paris took advantage of an assortment of accommodations for refugees and immigrants in order to murder their hosts. Abuse does not disprove right use, but right use doesn’t excuse abuse, either.  What’s a civilized nation to do? This is not a new question for the United States.


My grandmother’s grandmother, sixteen at the time, got on a boat in the late 1800’s and traveled from Germany to visit a friend who’d moved to the United States.  Germany and the US were getting along fine then.  The vacation turned into a permanent stay: My teenaged ancestor liked what she found, met a nice German-American boy, got married, and settled down.  Her children, including a handful of sons, all spoke German fluently.

When World War I broke out, there was no hand-wringing.  The German-American sons enlisted and went to war against Germany.  They did so with the full knowledge that they’d be fighting their own uncles, their mother’s brothers, who had likewise done the patriotic thing.

There was no second-guessing and no hard feelings.  You fight for your country, period.

Later the story gets more interesting: In the years between the wars, one of the uncles, a German veteran of WWI, came to the US to visit the family.  He started spouting Nazi propaganda, and was told by his sister and family to stuff it.   (Typical Thanksgiving family moment, everyone’s got the Nazi uncle, right?)

This straight-shooting American patriotism had help, no doubt, by the reality that in both World Wars, German-Americans were targets of suspicion.  And why shouldn’t they be?  Espionage is a thing.  Patriotism is a thing.  If you want to spy on your enemy, pick someone who knows both cultures fluently.

Still, German-Americans had it easy compared to Japanese-Americans, for the simple reason that Germans blended better.  Although it’s true that when I’m in Europe people assume I’m a native of the nearest blonde nation, you can’t just walk into a crowd of Americans of European heritage and pick out the German among the Swedes and the Swiss and the Irish and the English.  Japanese people, in contrast, are pretty easy to pinpoint in a room full of Norwegians.

But if it was hard to cull the second- and third-generation Germans, and easy to sort out the Japanese (or slightly-Japanese) no matter how long they’d been in the US, naturally the people who most resembled the enemy were Germans seeking asylum, and those in neighboring, German-speaking countries.  Think of people like the Von Trapps.


The challenge to refugee-resettlement is that on the one hand we know that not everyone who vaguely resembles the enemy is the enemy, but on the other hand, we don’t want to stupidly invite the wolf to walk right in.  Add onto that challenge the reality that there are plenty of people willing to turn coat on their own country for the right incentive, plus plenty of homegrown criminals who don’t require any kind of war at all in order to justify their murderous rampages.

Strict nativism is one possible solution. It’s neither Christian nor particularly American, but it’s certainly popular among American Christians who feel themselves firmly enough established as the right sort of natives.  A clamping down on civil liberties is another way to do it.  If you can search and seize at will, arrest and detain freely and indefinitely, perhaps among all the innocent citizens you sweep into your net, you can catch a few more of the guilty as well.  Police states are the government of choice among those whose highest priority is policing.

Is this what we want?

Or is there some way to have our Bill of Rights and a clean conscience towards those legitimately seeking our aid, without in the process inviting our enemies to overrun us?

I propose that there is, and I propose that it is difficult.

I suggest that rather than relying on the false security of racist tropes, we use instead the same detective work necessary when dealing with people who have all the right accents and documents, but are just as potentially deadly.  We who choose not to shirk our Christian obligation towards refugees are nonetheless free to vary in our opinions on how best to carry out that duty.  The evidence, however, is that it is in fact possible to put in place mechanisms that allow both prudence and charity to prevail.

I likewise suggest that the dangers we must necessarily risk in order to protect and preserve our freedoms are not dangers only for other people’s sons to experience on foreign shores, but part of the inherent tension of living in a free county — but that living in an unfree country is far more dangerous.  Each of the freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights bears risk of abuse by the citizens who practice those freedoms.  Denying any of these rights is an invitation to abuse by the power-hungry.

Were it self-evident that our governments could be trusted to behave honorably without the counter-pressure of free citizens armed-and-potentially-dangerous, the Founding Fathers would have felt no reason to revolt and no reason to write a constitution.  The study of history would consist primarily in reading about improvements in agriculture and road-paving.

I’m no anarchist.  I’m a proponent of the rule of law, uncorrupt, just, humane.  But it seems to me that there might be some way, some mysterious path well worth exploring, that could allow us to have our Germans and defeat them too.

File:Halt the Hun! Buy U.S. government bonds, third liberty loan (12307882665).jpg

Artwork by UBC Library Digitization Centre [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

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