The temporary halt to President Trump’s travel ban has not stopped him from continuing to lash out against immigrants and refugees. Once again, Trump is falsely painting immigrants and refugees as terrorists, and once again, journalists and others are fighting back with facts. As they correctly point out, not a single one of the three million refugees entering the nation since 1980 has participated in any terrorist attack on the nation.
But pointing out facts has not stopped Donald Trump from spreading falsehoods about immigrants and refugees thus far. When Trump claimed that millions of “illegals” voted in the last election, journalists made clear there is no evidence of systematic voter fraud. When Trump claimed his wall would stop migration of undocumented people, journalists and historians noted that our existing 700 miles of wall have historically done nothing of the sort. Meanwhile, his falsehoods have been rewarded as growing portions of his base come around to believing his baseless claims, which falsely paint immigrants as threats to national security. Even once-skeptical Republican leaders have begun falling in line, with fiscal conservative Paul Ryan now defending the 14 billion-dollar boondoggle that is Trump’s wall as a sound investment in the nation’s security.
How, then, should citizens who care deeply about the truth and its robust role in a healthy Democracy – whether Democrats, Independents, or Republicans – respond to our fact-challenged President? Immigration history provides some starting points. Resistance to facts about refugees and immigrants did not begin with Donald Trump. Rather than pointing out – yet again – that Trump’s recent travel bans are based on falsehoods, we might consider why facts about U.S. immigration policy have for decades been largely ignored by policy makers.
Walls have historically “worked” primarily as symbols rather than as policies, theatrical spaces where anxieties about nation and whiteness have been made visible and defended. Since 1990, Republicans and Democrats alike have supported building nearly 700 miles of walls on our southern border. But these fences have failed to stop undocumented immigration, drug importations, or terrorism. Yet walls remain more popular than ever. Indeed, walls thrive on their manifest failure to fix the problems they are supposed to solve.
Rather than simply fact-checking the President, some critics have of late begun to use national symbols against him. Protesters have embraced the Statue of Liberty as the icon du jour. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer meanwhile claimed there were tears rolling down Liberty’s cheeks in the wake of Trump’s refugee ban.
But the most effective historical responses to the sort of xenophobia that Trump peddles have been the stories of refugees and immigrants, told in their own words. When Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were falsely convicted of crimes in 1926, their powerful testimonies helped discredit widespread nativism and emboldened new immigrants to defend free speech and demand rights as citizens. Pakistani immigrant Khizr Khan similarly challenged the nativism fueling Donald Trump’s rise to power at last summer’s Democratic National Convention. Khan invited Trump “to read the U.S. Constitution” and condemned him for “smearing Muslims” and having “sacrificed nothing” in defense of the nation. Support for Trump among veterans briefly plummeted when he tweeted mean-spirited responses to the Gold Star family.
Throughout American history, refugees and immigrants have been some of our most idealistic, energetic, and fair-minded citizens, inspiring others to follow their lead. The very best citizen I know is Miguel, a refugee from El Salvador. After fleeing Marxist guerillas and right wing paramilitaries as a young teenager, Miguel is still fighting to become a U.S. citizen. Unable to vote, Miguel nonetheless registered over 1,200 voters in the spring of 2008, winning a local voter registration contest. He was rewarded with a photo-op with then candidate Barack Obama, but became an Obama critic when his administration oversaw record numbers of deportations. Time and again, Miguel has taught me that dissent is the highest expression of patriotism and that citizenship is a cherished public good, one that all residents of the United States can nurture. And no lies or un-American executive orders from the President can change that inspiring fact.
Gunther Peck is an associate professor of American history at Duke University and at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. He teaches courses on U.S. Immigration history and is completing a book on the history of human trafficking.