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Refugees and immigration: Layers

Words by Evan Harms

Although this blog wasn’t made to be overtly political, a great deal of what happens policy-wise ends up relating to our region in some way (at least it should — but that’s a whole separate post).

Take, for instance, President Trump’s recent executive order “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.”
One of many executive orders from Trump’s first week in office, including various gags on the EPA and National Parks Service, this one quickly garnered more attention as a “Muslim Ban” because it effectively prevents immigration and suspends people with visas from seven predominantly Muslim nations.

Perhaps more importantly, the order also suspends the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days. The legal jargon actually singles out Syrian refugees as “detrimental” to U.S. interests, and states that this halt on refugees will allow time for the feds to reassess their immigration and refugee policies.

This particular act was met with protests at major airports across the country, as well as a judicial block by a federal judge.

So, with the refugee crisis permeating a great deal of pop culture and policy, I felt obliged to dig into how it affects the Midwest.

Simply Googling the term “refugees in the midwest” gives quite a few different angles. We have a charming anecdote about Bosnian refugees in St. Louis by “The Economist,” a blog called “Refugee Resettlement Watch” that seems to be a grassroots nativist publication, a “Chicago Tribune” article about Syrian refugees in Indiana coping with then-Governor Mike Pence’s shutdown on refugee resettlement and another DIY anti-immigration website, “Midwest Coalition to Reduce Immigration.”

It doesn’t take much to realize the tension and narrative here — one that pervades a great deal of our political climate — pitting the simple citizen against the media and federal government. That dynamic is truly American and has been a familiar trope across time and space.

Hopefully we’re able recognize the agenda of all the aforementioned publications. Some certainly have more credibility than others, but we’re still able to sample feelings from all of them. This is especially relevant in whatever type of gonzo-anthropological-social journalism this is.

Early European immigrants to the Midwest were primarily German and Scandinavian, you can see that legacy throughout the region:

Door County, Wisconsin: Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant. Courtesy of aljohnsons.com

Ohio historical marker in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Irish, refugees from the famine that swept their homeland near the end of the 19th century, were the next to come into the Midwest, famously settling down in Cleveland and Chicago. They, and the Slavs and Southern Europeans that followed, were looked down upon by the Nordic-American climate of that time.

Courtesy of the New York Times

That’s no surprise, though, just as the Irish spat on Blacks, with whom they competed for low-level, horrible jobs in urban America since the emancipation. And still, both World Wars would create a massive influx of even more European refugees who would settle in places like Parma, Ohio and the Polish downtown neighborhood in Chicago.

We’ve seen layers of migrants and refugees look down on one another in America since the genocide of Native Americans by Anglo settlers. Layers of hatred and xenophobia are assuredly American traditions and the Midwest is not exempt.

This time though, it’s different. We’ve never really dealt with successful legislation prohibiting the entrance and success of refugees (with notable exceptions including The Alien and Sedition Acts and Jewish Refugees / Nazi Spies issue).

What does it mean, then? After all, Trump is just another coastal elite who had the wits to campaign as a Rust Belt populist, surely he doesn’t know the nuances of refugee placement — of which the Midwest has held a great deal of the load.

 

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