Stockbridge — In just one month, Donald Trump’s presidency has shot immigration and refugee issues into the light, striking fear into many hearts as campaign rhetoric about building walls, rounding people up and shipping them off looks like it might be coming true.
And as a nation populated with immigrants since long ago, people are now asking what exactly the problem is, and what to do about increased anxiety and fear around newcomers to America and the spike in fear among foreign nationals.
“Immigration has always been a source of anxiety in this country going back to the 19th century,” said Charles Park, a Berkshire Community College English professor who is the director of the Berkshire Immigrant Stories Project there.
Park joined Berkshire Immigrant Center director Hilary Greene and Bard College at Simon’s Rock professor Asma Abbas at “There’s No Place Like Home: Four Freedoms Forum, the Refugee Crisis” Thursday (Feb. 16) at the Norman Rockwell Museum for a town hall meeting-style event moderated by the museum’s executive director, Laurie Norton Moffatt.
“We’ve had immigration forever,” Greene said, noting the recent efforts by Jewish Family Services of Western Massachusetts to relocate Syrian refugees to Pittsfield.
Greene said things are so bad in Guatemala right now, for instance, that “unaccompanied minors” are taking some incredible and dangerous long-distance trips to sneak into the U.S.
Park reminded the audience that, beginning in 1882, Chinese migrants were not allowed into the U.S. “It was the first time there was legislation that specifically banned a whole ethnicity of people.” Later, it was the Japanese, he added, and, in the early 20th century, Irish and Italian immigrants were “undesirable…seen as somewhat subhuman.” He said this was in part because they were Catholic and “part of a larger international Catholic conspiracy.”
He said the farther away people live from U.S. borders, the more anxiety there is about immigrants.
What’s happening now, Abbas said, “is an intensification of things that have been in momentum for a long time.”
“Whiteness is a structure,” she added. “Immigration will always be an effect of the need to keep people out.”
Park said it was difficult and expensive to come to the U.S., particularly without an established network already in place here. He further said there are “more migrants leaving than coming in because of the economic downturn and political climate.” And some people have been saying, he noted, that Trump’s “wall might make it harder to leave the country.”
But foreign nationals are slipping across borders to come here for a reason, and this complicates economic and political theories.
“This country needs unskilled cheap labor,” Park said. “They come because we do need their labor.”
“The world system is basically a messed up situation,” Abbas said. “The structures have never served pretty much anyone except for a small class of people.”
Abbas, a political theorist and native of Pakistan, said she mostly studies “the outsider” and says this lens is critical for thoughtful action in a time of panic. She said she didn’t like the words “refugee” and “crisis” together. “What is the crisis?” she said. “When ‘crisis’ is created, someone steps in to create order.”
Enter Trump’s rush to sign executive orders banning refugees from seven targeted countries, in addition to threatening sanctuary cities with penalties. The order banning refugees was overturned in court but is now being appealed. And Greene pointed out that, out of the roughly 800,000 refugees from those seven countries, only three have been arrested and only for “threats.”
Moffatt pointed out United Nations data that say there are almost 60 million refuges and internally displaced people worldwide.
“For many people around the world, home is not a place of safety and security,” she added.
“We have all been complicit in the creation of the ‘refugee,’” Abbas said. “Just remember the hand we had in the production of that problem, and to even think of another human being in need as a problem.”
She noted England’s recent ban on disabled immigrants, including disabled children, from war-torn countries.
Abbas wants to remind people to “hear the outsider,” or “pariah,” as journalist Hannah Arendt called them. Arendt is best known for her coverage of the Nuremberg Trials.
Some audience members asked what they could do to help and some said they had already gotten busy.
Joanne Rogovin of the newly formed Berkshire Women’s Action Group is in touch with Greene of the Immigrant Center, and is starting to plot a way forward “to mitigate against some things we’re hearing and seeing in the county.” She said the group of 80 so far is looking for more members and wants to collaborate with other organizations.
Jennifer Hermansky is the executive director of the Literacy Network of South Berkshire. She said the organization tutors 130 adults, 90 percent of whom are immigrants.
Trump’s policies stir many hearts and minds into fear since the U.S. really is a nation of immigrants. And there are memories, even here in the Berkshires, of what happened when desperate people were turned away from American shores.
Patricia Hubbard of Sandisfield said her husband’s grandparents and child had been passengers on the St. Louis, a German ocean liner carrying 900 German Jewish refugees who were turned away from the U.S., Canada and Cuba. The ship was forced back to Germany where it is estimated that one quarter of those passengers died in concentration camps.
“I’ve been feeling like I want to crawl into a hole,” said Barbara Palmer, who is German. She said the free press is critical to a democracy and should be supported financially. “We’re finding out what we are because there are still some really good journalists out there who are being paid to do that work.” Palmer urged people to subscribe to and pay for newspapers to keep the free press alive.
A woman who identified herself only as “Emily from Virginia” spoke of talking sense to people who may warm up to harsh immigration policies. She hinted at the Berkshires political bubble: “It’s easy for us to be in an echo chamber here in this room, and easy for them to be in an echo chamber there in the heartland.”
Park said the shift from manufacturing to technology and jobs sent offshore was partly to blame for that fear in the heartland among people who “don’t see a path forward” for themselves or their children.
And Abbas said that middle-class incomes have gone up despite what the Trump machine is telling us. “It is the production of a narrative we have to counter…a president doing something like what Hitler did for a short time to get into power.”
But countering this requires thoughtful action, not just action, and perhaps a messier way forward, Abbas said.
“We have to glue up the wheels and not just make them spin faster.” And, put another way, she said, “stepping back in order to see better.”
Part of this, Abbas added, is for the community to “build institutions that can hold each other rather than use the state (government.)…to look at ourselves and each other more than just that one power.”
She said all the hand-wringing over Trump will get everyone only so far. She said we shouldn’t necessarily look “away from evil, but there is a lot of good to look at.”
Park echoed Abbas about well-thought out action.
“We’ve been here before,” he said. “This is not a new moment. Do we want to make the mistakes of the past or do we want to do something new?”
The event was live streamed and can be viewed below: