Out in New York Harbor in 1903, the bronze plaque with Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” was affixed to the Statue of Liberty. It’s the one that begins: “Give me your tired, your poor…” Her poem went on to welcome 5,000 to 10,000 immigrants every day between 1900 and 1914. About 40 percent of Americans are now descended from someone who came through Ellis Island. My great-grandfather was one of them.
His name was Avram. The year the plaque was being installed inside the Statue of Liberty, Avram was living in a place called Bessarabia, then part of tsarist Russia, now mostly in Moldova.Pogroms were ravaging cities across the region. That year, Avram and his wife, Dora, set sail with their son, my grandfather Joseph, aged four.
The family settled on New York’s Lower East Side, where Avram learned English but spoke his native Yiddish at home, reading a Yiddish-language newspaper each night. He didn’t arrive with much money; he did piecework making zippers for a while and went on to become very active in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union — a feminist labor organizer ahead of his time. He spent the rest of his life in America, dying in Brooklyn in 1954.
Yet under a new presidential determination from the White House, future Avrams may never have the chance to come to the United States. According to both international and U.S. refugee law, people like my great-grandfather have for decades been candidates for refugee resettlement based solely on their well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries. Their ability to “assimilate” — learn English and embrace the customs of the United States — had no bearing on their asylum applications. That, however, may be about to change: Buried inside the 65-page Sept. 27 directive that also capped the number of refugees to be resettled in the United States next year at 45,000, the lowest since the White House began setting a limit in 1980, there is vague, disconcerting language that lawyers and immigration experts say they have never seen before in reference to refugees in this country.
The Trump administration may now consider “certain criteria that enhance a refugee’s likelihood of successful assimilation and contribution in the United States” in addition to the humanitarian criteria that have long been the standard for refugee claims, according to the determination, which is similar to an executive order in that it has the force of law. That term, “assimilation,” is brand-new in the history of U.S. policy on refugees, and it appears in the document over and over again. Previous directives have used the word “integration,” which comes from the Latin “integrare” — “to make whole” — and implies some change on the part of society as well as those entering it. “Assimilation,” in contrast, “is kind of the erasure of cultural markers,” according to Kathleen Newland, a senior fellow at the Washington-basedMigration Policy Institute. “It’s important to make a distinction,” because, she said, the word “has that connotation of erasure of one thing and absorption into the mainstream culture.”
There is little doubt that this is the meaning of “assimilate” the White House has in mind. As a candidate, Donald Trumpcomplained about what he saw as a lack of assimilation among Muslim immigrants, a group he has smeared repeatedly, from belittling Muslim Gold Star parents to pretending his “Muslim ban” never really targeted Muslims, despite the fact that his campaign website called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S.”. More recently, on Sept. 15, the National Archives in Washington debuted a video of the presidentwelcoming new U.S. citizens in which he says, “Our history is now your history. And our traditions are now your traditions.” He adds, “You now share the obligation to teach our values to others, to help newcomers assimilate to our way of life.”
It remains unclear how exactly the administration would go about assessing refugees’ ability to assimilate. The document itself does not address this, despite claims to the contrary from the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which referenced the “apparent inclusion” of an “assimilation test” in a confusing Sept. 28 press release. In fact, a close reading of the presidential determination yields no mention of a test. There is, however, an ominous undertone that seems to hint at future efforts to gauge the likelihood that asylum applicants would assimilate. “Improved assimilation of refugees and asylees will not only boost their ability to be successful in the United States, but will also secure our communities by fostering a cohesive society based upon shared civic ideals, and appreciation of our history, and an understanding of the English language,” reads one particularly troubling sentence.
Two days after the release of the presidential determination, the White House put out a fact sheet apparently meant to justify what is contained in the larger document. Referring to Trump’s “America First Refugee Program,” the sheet repeatedly emphasizes the “safety” of Americans. “Some refugees who have been admitted to the United States have posed threats to national security and public safety,” the fact sheet asserts. It goes on to say: “Since 2011, there have been at least 20 admitted refugees who have been arrested or removed from the United States based on terrorism investigations.” The fact that this was 20 out of hundreds of thousands — making Americans roughly 3,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed by a refugee — was of course left unsaid.
But the fact sheet was similarly devoid of details on implementation. A State Department official who refused to be named said she would have to get back to me on every question I asked about the new language, then followed up later to say she would not actually be getting back to me with specific answers. Still, she assured me that nothing was changing for now. “The standard criteria that UNHCR uses to make refugee resettlement referrals to the United States are not changing. The United States remains committed to helping the most vulnerable refugees and adheres to the principle of non-discrimination enshrined in our Constitution and in international refugee law,” she wrote in an email to Foreign Policy, adding that the U.S. refugee admission program “has sought to achieve self-sufficiency for refugees admitted to the United States as soon as possible, and we carry out various programs both overseas and domestically towards that goal, including English language and employment programs. With this in mind, we will discuss within the [U.S. government] in the coming year how to provide additional support for refugees to help them assimilate.”
But organizations that rely on funding to help refugees worry that the new policy will bring about substantive changes. They point in particular to a section stating that the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services “is considering prioritizing grant-funded programs that focus on integrating newly arrived refugees … through a variety of critical assimilation services.” “This part is definitely troubling,” said Newland, echoing advocates who fear they could lose the already limited funds allocated to help refugees find homes, jobs, and education.
Not everyone agrees that the new language is necessarily a bad thing, however. With no clear guidance from the Trump administration on how the goal of “assimilation” will affect the refugee resettlement process, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) is making no judgments about the determination, at least for now. “UNHCR has long advocated for more focused and sustained efforts to support successful integration of refugees once they arrive in the country of resettlement, and we look forward to discussing ideas on how to help bring this about,” said Chris Boian, a spokesman for the agency.
But migration experts and advocates for refugees’ rights see something more sinister in Trump’s presidential directive: at best a white nationalist dog whistle intended to appease the so-called “alt-right” and at worst a dangerous shift in U.S. refugee policy that could be used to discriminate specifically against Muslims and other minority — especially nonwhite — groups.
“Where is this all of a sudden coming from?” said Hans Van de Weerd, vice president of U.S. programs at the IRC. “We have of course our theories. There is a whole ideological faction right now in the government that is anti-immigration, anti-foreigner, and that really likes to keep America the way it is. But that is not what this country is about.”
Indeed, the language in the directive is suspiciously similar to the language used online by white supremacists and members of the alt-right, including Ann Corcoran, who in June 2013 lamented on her nationalist website, Refugee Resettlement Watch, that the term “‘assimilation’ is no longer a part of government lexicon and does not even occur in dozens of recent reports and papers generated about refugee resettlement. The operative term in vogue now is ‘integration’ with its clear intent of maintenance of ethnic identity.” And it’s not just that Trump’s determination echoes the language of racists and hate groups — such groups seem to have played a direct role in this language modification. The Sept. 29 White House fact sheet cites as a source the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group because of the “fear-mongering misinformation” it publishes about immigrants.
My great-grandfather would not have been considered “assimilated” in the way many on the right — people like White House senior policy advisor Stephen Miller, former chief strategist Steve Bannon, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — so long for refugees to be.
Avram worked hard here and raised a family. But he chose to keep his religious beliefs and to speak his own language in addition to English. Like the Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, and Somalis who may wish to hold onto their heritage while at the same time embracing their adoptive country, he was the definition of what makes America great. In one of her lesser-known poems, titled “In Exile,” Lazarus included an excerpt from a letter written by a Russian refugee living in Texas. “Since that day till now our life is one unbroken paradise. We live a true brotherly life. Every evening after supper we take a seat under the mighty oak and sing our songs,” it reads.
In Trump’s America, will refugees be free to sing their songs? Or will there be only silence?