The Refugee Scapegoat

When things start going awry in a country, it becomes all too easy to blame vulnerable populations, and it helps when these populations are shrouded in mystery (read: ignorance) and they don’t look like you. The term is otherwise known as ‘othering,’ the process by which we mentally decide that someone or a group is “not one of us.”

This technique often works best, as it has for years, to concentrate fear and anger that arises from unfavorable social conditions, whether it’s from fear about violence in communities, the loss of jobs, or cultural shifts. The issue, however, is that while none of these claims hold objectively, they each make for an essential political rhetoric that grants individuals with influence to impact the masses and diagnose certain individual groups as the culprits of all that is going wrong.

Nativism, the position that grants privilege to certain classes of inhabitants of a country over immigrants or other newcomers, accomplishes two important things. First, it unifies an uneasy public base. These are people who are uncomfortable with what is happening and this allows for a singular message or banner under which they can unite and fight, thereby promoting group cohesion. Second, it targets individuals, thereby seeming to “identify” the problem and its cause. This makes the individual making the claim appear intelligent, as though they have figured out why things are as they are, while also disparaging a group of others, oftentimes those who the public may already have questions about.

Younger and educated people tend to be more open to these sorts of issues, with 76% of millennials believing that immigrants’ hard work and talent has benefitted the nation, while 41% of the silent generation takes this position.

Yet despite sampling from some of the most educated groups of younger people, we don’t always display our best in the face of uncertainty and fear. Take the survey conducted by Harvard in 1939 regarding students’ views on accepting Jewish refugee children from Germany during the World War II. 61% of students polled were against bringing in 10,000 of these refugee children, known now, of course, to be a huge humanitarian crisis at the time. When America’s educated, elite youth is unable to make these sorts of decisions in time of peril, how can we trust average working class families to not be swayed by political rhetoric?

Humanity has evolved, some claim. We’ve come a long way and know better than we did then; however, similar sentiments largely exist today. The fact that the majority of Americans still believe that illegal immigrants are stealing U.S. jobs when that is objectively false demonstrates the extent to which rhetoric surrounding immigration in this country has reached in perpetuating falsehoods. Despite popular beliefs, illegal immigrants are not stealing U.S. workers’ jobs. But this too was and remains a common ploy to disparage undocumented individuals around the world.

The next falsehood encompasses the belief that many of these immigrants, or more accurately refugees—as these are often not people migrating entirely voluntarily—are posing a threat to the lives and livelihoods of others. This sentiment has become vastly popular in recent years, although the criminalization of immigrants in general has been well documented. Now that many of the humanitarian crises resulting in mass refugee movements are from Islamic countries, politicians are harping on terrorists coming in as refugees. This is ignoring that out of the nearly 800,000 refugees who’ve immigrated to the U.S. since 9/11, only three have plotted terrorist attacks. In fact, even apart from terrorism, immigrants are far less likely to commit acts of violence than U.S. born individuals. The statistical truth is undocumented workers aren’t stealing American jobs, and that immigrants are actually much less likely to commit violent crimes than American born individuals.

Yet with each violent act of terror, such as the recent explosion in Chelsea, NYC, politicians will be fast to stir up this fear and serve it as a political soundbite. Imagine, they’ll say, what will happen when more refugees are let into the country, implying that these individuals who are escaping from the exact same sort of terror they’re trying to prevent will be committing these atrocities, a completely unfounded statement.

Instead, if anything, these sorts of Islamophobic, racist, and/or xenophobic statements will only add to the rhetoric employed by terrorists, that there is a waging war between the West and Islam, when top presidential candidates and officials are claiming that Western/American values are blatantly irreconcilable with Islamic values, or that they must assimilate and be wary of bringing too many cultural influences with them, etc. And these sorts of hateful attitudes are not only wrong, they are extremely dangerous in feeding the beast that they swear to defeat.

This article was written by Amar Ojha, founder and writer at dusk magazine. 

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