Thanksgiving ushers in a season of holiday shopping, festive events like parades, tree lightings, football, cultural favorites like the Nutcracker Ballet and Radio City Rockettes, the ball drop in Times Square – big gatherings where there is a collective warmth and good cheer to counter the darkness and chill of winter.
This year might be different, as people shun shopping malls, stadiums, concert halls and curtail travel plans out of fear.
This is exactly what terrorism is designed to do. No terror attack is an existential threat; the 19 9/11 hijackers could never take over our country. Terrorists cannot take all of us. What terror attacks are designed to do – and so far showing amazing ease at doing – is disrupt the economy, particularly tourism.
And let’s be clear: America’s leadership in the world is less because of “values” – you can’t actually transplant our Constitution and Bill of Rights, as we have found in Iraq – than our economic might (look at how Great Britain, once the mightiest empire on the planet, has fallen as a superpower). If our economy collapses, so does our ability to maintain military supremacy, dictate policy and transplant our cultural and political values.
In 2014 international visitors spent $220.8 billion experiencing the United States. These travel and tourism “exports” accounted for 31 percent of all U.S. services exports and 9 percent of all U.S. exports, goods and services alike, helping maintain a favorable trade balance. International spending supports 1.3 million jobs.
International spending is just a small fraction of the travel and tourism industry in the United States, which all told generated $1.5 trillion in economic output in 2013. Travel and tourism supports nearly 8 million U.S. jobs – one out of every 18 Americans is employed, directly or indirectly, in a travel or tourism-related enterprise. In 2014, U.S. travel and tourism output represented 2.6 percent of gross domestic product.
Strength of tourism has been a big factor in wresting the US out of the 2008 Great Recession, consistently outpacing other sectors in private job creation and helping bring down the unemployment rates from 10 percent to 5 percent today. Travel industry, historically, has been the greatest engine for upward mobility of any, lifting up women, minorities and yes, immigrants from poverty into the middle class.
Tourism is the first or second more important industry in most countries, states and even localities including New York City. But its importance goes beyond economics. Each traveler and each person the traveler meets become an ambassador for their country and their community and their culture, fostering understanding, communication and bonds. It is harder to support killing people once they are no longer considered “other” or “stranger” or some anonymous figure. Face to face contact, personal communication make all the difference.
President Obama’s Administration has taken dramatic steps to boost travel and tourism – improving the entry process and expanding automated passport control kioks at airports, participating in a public-private partnership, Brand USA, to promote travel to the US. Easing visa restrictions had been a goal, and it is a key reason for the growth in international visits and the economic boom that has brought.
Obama’s National Travel and Tourism Strategy has a goal of attracting 100 million international visitors a year to the U.S. by 2021. So far, number of foreign visitors has risen from 55 million in 2009 to 70 million in 2014.
It’s important to put this into perspective because last year alone, 20 million international visitors came to the United States under the visa waiver program – just hopping on a plane and coming in, while the handful of Syrian and Iraqi refugees who are admitted into the US go through the most stringent vetting process ever devised, taking 18 to 24 months to complete.
Who becomes a candidate for resettlement in the US starts with a recommendation from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (only 1% are recommended). That candidate goes first to the US State Department for review (20% are excluded) and the remaining candidates are subjected to an extensive review by a half-dozen agencies including Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, which reviews every terror watch list in the world, and does batteries of interviews. The process, with 20 separate methodical steps, takes 18-24 months. (See: “Why It Takes Two Years for Syrian Refugees to Enter the U.S.,” New York Times,).
Now Republicans, advancing legislation through Congress (it passed the House 289 to 137 with 47 Democrats) have drawn a new line in the sand, blocking the refugee program altogether, unless every one of the 10,000 refugees that Obama wants to take in next year be personally vouched for by the director of the F.B.I., the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence, that each applicant from Syria and Iraq poses no threat.
“The United States has resettled 784,000 refugees since September 11, 2001,” Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute wrote recently. “In those 14 years, exactly three resettled refugees have been arrested for planning terrorist activities—and it is worth noting two were not planning an attack in the United States and the plans of the third were barely credible.”
These calculations mean “there’s maybe a 100-times greater likelihood that, say, a Floridian will turn out to be a murderer over a 10-year period than that a refugee will attempt terrorism. So if we’re willing to allow Floridians free entry into other states, allowing Syrian refugees shouldn’t be a problem,” Nicholas Kristof wrote in “The Statue of Liberty Must Be Crying With Shame”
“Let’s be real: Refugee admission is the most deeply vetted pathway into the United States. Even for Iraqis who worked as translators for our military, risking their lives to keep Americans alive and enjoying strong support of American officers, vetting can take a couple of years. That’s why the 9/11 attackers didn’t enter the U.S. as refugees, but as students and tourists.”
Such bigotry has, to our shame, too often been part of America’s story – the Indian Removal Act of 1830 under President Andrew Jackson, who defied the Supreme Court which declared it unconstitutional; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; the Palmer Raids of 1919-1920; the internment camps of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the closing of borders to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi Holocaust (Gerald Nadler said that probably two million of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust could have been saved). And only last year, shutting out women and children fleeing the violence in Central America (Ebola!). Each time, such acts were justified by religion and fear.
Kristof notes that in the 1930s and 1940s, as Jews were desperately trying to escape Nazi persecution. “Breckinridge Long, then a senior State Department official in charge of visas, warned that Nazi spies were trying to enter the U.S. as refugees. In the name of security, he established vetting rules so strict that few Jews could pass.
“We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants,” Long boasted in a 1940 memo. His callous security requirements led to the deaths of many tens of thousands of Jews.
“Yes, security was a legitimate concern then, as it is now, but security must be leavened with common sense and a bit of heart.”
I am frankly ashamed of Congressman Steve Israel, who never fails to relate the story of his grandparents coming to this country and how proud they would be of having a grandson in Congress. He voted to halt the Syrian refugee program.
Senator Bernie Sanders, who is running for the Democratic Presidential nomination, is the son of immigrants, and yet he is voting very differently:
“While my father came here as an immigrant, many have also come as refugees fleeing war, oppression and violence. That’s why I opposed the call of some to turn away unaccompanied children who showed up on our borders from Latin America. We must not allow the horrific violence we have seen in France and elsewhere to turn us from our historic role as a haven for the oppressed.
“In terms of the Syrian refugee situation we are now facing, now is not the time for us to succumb to racism and bigotry. In this moment, it is particularly important that we not allow ourselves to be divided by the anti-immigrant hysteria that Republican presidential candidates are ginning up.
“When hundreds of thousands of people have lost everything and have nothing left but the shirts on their backs, we should not turn our backs on these refugees escaping violence in the Middle East. Of course we have to investigate the backgrounds of people coming into the country — and we will — but to suggest that we would even turn away orphans is incredible..” (Frankly, one element that should be added to the vetting process if it is not already, besides uncovering any possible links to jihadists, is having been indoctrinated to hate Jews.)
The risk of a terrorist being unwittingly admitted with refugees is a one in a 261,000 phenomenon – not the 10 tainted peanuts in a five-pound bag, as GOP Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee ranted. “Peanuts kill more people each year than terrorists,” John Oliver noted on Last Week Tonight, Nov. 22. “Men named Mike kill more. We don’t deport all men named Mike. As reasonable adults, we accept a small amount of risk – we drive cars, swim in pools. Twenty people a year are killed by cows, but we don’t expel them all – we take them out one by one,” he joked, displaying a photo of a hamburger. “We can’t completely eliminate risk.”
Indeed, the only refugees to America who actually did decimate the native population were sitting around the first Thanksgiving feast with the Wampanoag people who saved the Plimoth colony from starvation that first winter, Oliver pointed out.
If Republicans were genuinely concerned about protecting public health and safety, they wouldn’t be so keen to shut down Obamacare, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), to block actions that address the calamities of climate change, or to ease access to military grade weapons and high-capacity ammo, even for people on a terror watch list. Wanton gun violence in this country kills 30,000 people a year and hundreds of thousands more who are maimed, yet Republicans have blocked the CDC from keeping statistics on gun incidents and pediatricians from asking parents if they keep a gun at home and even block the government’s investigation into homegrown terror groups that profess White Supremacy.
And even with the actual damage of ISIS in his own country, French President Hollande has said that France would fulfill its commitment to accept 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years. “We will remain a country of freedom,” he declared.
This is also the season, from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day, when “peace on earth, good will to all” ascends to a national mission, though perhaps just in song and in Hallmark movies. What does the pseudo “war on Christmas” that right wingnuts have contrived mean, when they are the ones who are advocating a repudiation of Christian values, let alone the Christmas spirit?
Marco Rubio justifies callous disregard for Muslim lives by insisting that this nation was founded as a Christian nation. Not true. In fact, it is a heretical assertion (but what would he know, being the son of a refugee who was able to capitalize on the privileged status that Cubans had, among all others seeking refuge in the United States).
At least five marranos (secret Jews) accompanied Columbus on his first voyage of discovery in 1492, the year Spain initiated the Inquisition. One of them, Luis de Torres, is said to have been the first European to tread the soil of America, and the first to discover the use of tobacco. He settled in Cuba. Indeed, there is some suggestion that Columbus himself was a marrano (see “Was Columbus Secretly a Jew?“). Instead of claiming the New World for Spain, the explorers could have just as easily have claimed America for the “New Jerusalem.” Or Cuba could have been a Jewish State and Marco Rubio would have been a Jew instead of a Christian (and I am sure he would not, then, claim the United States as Christian.)
We think of the colonists only as Puritans, but also among the earliest colonists in America were Jews escaping persecution in Europe – including Aaron Lopez, whose his innovation of spermaceti candles and his trade made him one of the wealthiest men in America (denied citizenship in Newport because he was a Jew, he went to Massachusetts). By the time of the actual founding of the nation, it was the Humanists, like Thomas Jefferson, who set the framework that explicitly ruled out a theocracy at a time when most nations had a state religion. I have long believed that Jefferson had in mind the Salem witch trials and persecutions of 1692 in formulating the establishment clause and the prohibition of a religious test for political office, and he expounded on a wall between church and state.
But based on this fraud that the United States is a Christian Nation, women have been denied their reproductive rights, which quite literally makes them slaves of the state (Hobby Lobby and the Hobby Lobby 2.0 case), gays have been denied access to jobs and housing, and politicians have skirted the Constitution to funnel taxpayer money into religious schools and faith-based groups. And yet they also pass laws banning Sharia law, bar the building of an Islamic community center, while Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz are proposing that the US accept only Christian refugees – a religious test if ever there was one. (“How would you know if a person was Christian,” Jeb! was asked. “You’re a Christian – I mean, you can prove you’re a Christian,” he said. “You can’t prove it, then, you know, you err on the side of caution.”
Thanksgiving, especially, should be the time of year when we renew a focus on reforming a broken immigration system, when we are reminded that all but the Native Peoples the colonists displaced, were immigrants, indeed many millions were refugees from persecution. At the turn of the century, with the demands of the Industrial Revolution for cheap labor from abroad, Thanksgiving as a national holiday was used to celebrate America as a Melting Pot of diversity and opportunity for all to achieve the “American Dream.”
The terror attacks have not only reversed America’s long-standing framework for accepting refugees, but is only the latest excuse Republicans use for not tackling the massive, decades-old broken immigration system.
Paul Ryan upon ascending to Speaker of the House, declared any serious consideration of immigration reform “dead” because he said, he couldn’t trust President Obama.
And yet, despite Donald Trump’s demagoguery, during the Obama Administration the number of Mexicans leaving the US exceeded the number trying to get in. From 2009 to 2014, more than one million Mexicans and their families voluntarily left the United States for Mexico, while 865,000 came in (including unauthorized immigrants), according to Pew Research.
There needs to be a mechanism to legalize the status of the 11 million people who are here – to come out of the shadows and be able to live without fear of being corralled, taken from family, and deported.
This does not mean bestowing automatic citizenship – though once with a legalized status, people should be able to apply for citizenship (it is remarkable how many don’t who are eligible), and be reviewed as anyone else. The mistake the bipartisan group (including Marco Rubio) made in the immigration reform legislation that passed the Senate (and was blocked in the House) was in insisting on providing a path to citizenship in immigration reform. That can be debated later on – once legalized, a person should be able to apply for citizenship as anyone else.
President Obama, who had made immigration reform a key goal when he took office in 2009, has tried to work around Congress’ obstruction to resolving the crisis, using his executive authority to temporarily, at least, give safe haven to Dreamers and then, last year, to parents of children born in the US.
The Republicans, calling Obama a tyrant, cried foul and sued to block his order.
Last week, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. urged the Supreme Court to take prompt action to reverse an “unprecedented and momentous” appeals court ruling that blocked Obama’s plan to let more than four million undocumented immigrants legally live and work in the United States.
At this time of year, it is good to be reminded of George Washington’s words to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport:
The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
News & Photo Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. Tweet @KarenBRubin, ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures