Spring Teaching: Immigrants and Refugees

(I wrote this up for an informal talk at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Philadelphia. I ended up not using much of the actual text of it since the event was a more informal, salon-type conversation. Thanks to Colleen Clemens for inviting me.) 

I’ve been teaching a first-year writing course called “Nation of Immigrants” this spring with a combination of literary texts and films and a strong non-fiction component emphasizing refugees. Earlier in the course we read books like John Okada’s No-No Boy, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus, and T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, to open up a space of conversation about different immigrant histories and experiences. What are some of the dilemmas immigrant communities face as they follow the path towards acculturation into the American mainstream? What is lost and what is gained along the path to becoming an American?

We used the Boyle novel, which was published in the wake of the Proposition 187 debates in California, as an opening to talk about the huge and yawning problem of America’s undocumented immigrant population. I had the students read debates about immigration in the press at that time (including op-eds by Governor Pete Wilson and others); it was remarkable to see how much overlap there is between what was being said then and what is being said about undocumented immigrants now. I also showed the students Jose Vargas’ documentary, Documented, to give them an example of an undocumented immigrant who looks and sounds a lot like themselves. And we of course talked about how the Presidential candidates have been discussing the issue of undocumented immigrants in the current election cycle.

In the last few weeks of the course we’ve been focusing on refugees. I built the unit around the Mariel Boatlift of 1980, a remarkable event where 125,000 Cuban migrants entered the U.S. without documentation or prior approval, and were immediately granted parole (parole: temporary legal status and work authorization; the first step towards permanent residency). The vast majority of them would later be granted green cards under the Cuban Adjustment Act – a policy which has enabled hundreds of thousands of Cubans to come to the U.S. and gain legal status without the same kinds of resistance experienced by undocumented immigrants from other national backgrounds. While we talked about this unique event in class, I also gestured to my students about the contrast between the American response to this extraordinary influx of immigrants in 1980 and our current response to the prospect of admitting increased numbers of Syrian refugees fleeing the devastating conflict in their home country.

We started our conversations about refugees in American history with a discussion of some earlier American Refugee policies, including the Displaced Persons Act (1948), the Refugee Relief Act (1953), the Cuban Adjustment Act (1966), and the Refugee Act of 1980. (One source I used was David Haines' book Safe Haven? A History of Refugees in America.) All told, these various acts have been responsible for the admission of more than 4 million total refugees to the U.S. between 1948 and 2009. The large Cuban American population in Florida, the Laotian and Hmong populations in the upper Midwest, and a sizeable chunk of America’s Vietnamese and Korean populations are the result of those policies. And while there might on occasion be some grumbling about these communities (mainly from older white folks: think Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino), by and large it’s pretty clear that these were successful refugee resettlement projects. The combination of government agencies and non-governmental agencies (such as, in the Hmong case, the Lutheran Church) worked together to help these new immigrants find a place for themselves in American society.

We also talked about the national origins of many of the Refugees – and the U.S. history of admitting refugees in particular from nations where it had been involved in creating the problems that led to civil conflict. Thus, the U.S. was especially open to immigrants from Korea in the wake of the Korean War in the early 1950s, and then again to refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia after the war in Vietnam ended in the early 1970s. According to State department data, we admitted more than a half million refugees from Asia between 1975 and 1981, and continued to admit large numbers of Asian refugees through the 1990s (1975-1999: total 1.3 million Asian refugees). Starting in the late 1980s and continuing through the 1990s, we were admitting tens of thousands of refugees from various conflict areas in the former Soviet Union – a total of 500,000 refugees between 1988 and 2001. Up until 2001, it was common, even routine, for the U.S. to admit more than 100,000 refugees a year from all over the world. Those numbers dropped dramatically after 2001 – into the low thousands -- and have only slowly been rising again during the Obama administration, reaching a plateau of about 70,000 refugees a year for the past three years.

(Incidentally, the migrants who came into the U.S. from Cuba in the Mariel boatlift were not classified as refugees by the State department, so they are not counted in the statistics I gave above.)

The Mariel boatlift is a particularly interesting case study that reflects an immense patience and generosity on the part of the U.S. government and the people of Florida, where most of the Marielitos settled. It wasn’t that the boatlift was all that popular; at the time, the government’s failure to create an effective blockade to reduce the numbers of Cubans entering Florida was seen as a sign of weakness by the Carter administration. News reports were rife with stories indicating that the Mariel Cubans were uneducated and predisposed to criminality – the rumor was that Castro had emptied his jails and mental asylums, and put those inmates on boats headed to the U.S. And while these reports turned out to be exaggerated, there’s no doubt that the Cubans who entered the U.S. in the Mariel boatlift were, on the whole, less educated and less financially secure than the earlier generation of Cubans, many of whom came into the U.S. at the time of the Revolution in part to protect financial assets that Castro was threatening to nationalize. 

For more fine-grained detail on the Mariel boatlift, check out the detailed timeline we created in a collaborative, in-class Google Docs exercise, where students added their own material to a skeleton structure I created for them. I derived a good deal of my own knowledge about the Mariel boatlift from Kathleen Hawk and Ron Villella's book Florida and the Mariel Boatlift of 1980: The First Twenty Days.  As a side-note, I showed the students two films with very different representations of the Mariel boatlift, Mira Nair's The Perez Family and Brian de Palma's Scarface.

From Mariel to Syria

As we learned, the choice to allow the 125,000 Cubans to enter in the span of five months was effectively a deliberate decision by Jimmy Carter at the time. The Marielitos, who came in on private boats chartered by Cuban American relatives in Miami, quickly became a political football being juggled in an intense PR war between Castro and Carter. Carter was hoping and expecting that the image of thousands of Cuban citizens fleeing the country would make Castro look weak, and potentially destabilize the Communist government (it didn’t). And by opening the floodgates and allowing 100,000 people to leave the country in just a few weeks, Castro was in some ways daring the U.S. to follow through on its claims of being a democratic society invested in humanitarianism. While Carter only planned initially to accept 3000 Cuban emigrants, in the end he accepted 125,000. He may have lost the PR war in the short term (and the Mariel boatlift probably contributed to his losing his reelection bid to Ronald Reagan that same fall), but in the long term we have to see that openness as an extraordinary expression of generosity.

Today we don’t seem to have that same openness or generosity. Arguably the conditions in Syria are comparable to those in Southeast Asia in the 1970s. Then, we saw a humanitarian situation in Vietnam and Laos that was a direct consequence of the U.S. military action there. The U.S. took an attitude of “we broke it – we made this country inhospitable for thousands of people who supported us and worked for us there— so we at least have to do a little something to fix it, and take them in.” Arguably, we helped “break it” in Syria too, with support for the protests against the Assad regime that triggered brutal repression from Assad and sparked off the civil war that continues to this day. We are also engaged in ongoing bombing of ISIS targets in eastern Syria. And the general sense of instability in the region is clearly linked to the unnecessary war in Iraq that started in 2003. The U.S. may not have the same degree of involvement in Syria it had in Vietnam and Laos, but it also cannot stand back and say, "this has nothing to do with us."

While we hear a good deal about the political crisis European nations are having over Syrian refugees, it’s worth starting by noting that by far, the countries that are currently holding the largest numbers of refugees are Turkey (2.75 million refugees), Lebanon (more than a million refugees, and Jordan (1.25 million refugees – 600,000 of whom are officially registered). Germany and Greece have both taken in nearly 500,000 Syrian refugees each. Canada, our neighbor to the north that has 1/10th the population of the U.S., has taken in 30,000 Syrian refugees.

Nearly 2800 Syrian refugees trying to teach Europe by boat have died or disappeared while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. (If you count migrants from other national backgrounds, nearly 4000 people died while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. We all heard about the horrific incident last April, when 800 people died in a boat that capsized off the coast of Libya. But that was only the biggest incident…)

Meanwhile, as of February 2016, the U.S. has taken in and resettled a grand total of 3000 Syrian refugees. Given the scale of what other countries are doing to alleviate the sufferings of Syrians in refugee camps in neighboring countries, the number is laughably small. Not only do we have a moral responsibility to the refugees themselves to do more, arguably we have a responsibility to our allies – especially countries like Turkey and Jordan – to alleviate the immense strain that is being placed on them by the huge influx of refugees from the Syrian conflict.

It’s also pretty sad given what I have been saying the history of American generosity at earlier moments. Because of that history, the United States has a highly developed capacity we have to absorb new immigrants and resettle refugees around the country. I mentioned the very robust network of organizations around the country that have been helping to resettle refugees for decades; we can certainly handle thousands more Syrians (given the scale of the crisis and the example of the Mariel boatlift, if I were President I would U.S. target for this year at 100,000 – not the 10,000 the Obama administration has set as a target). We have ample evidence that most refugees do quite well in the U.S. and become productive members of society and contribute to economic growth. The United States can and should be doing more.