On Jan. 3, 2019, “Do Your Job” rallies, marches, and protests were held in cities and towns across the country. It was the first day of the new Congress and voters had a message to deliver. In Greenville, one of the speakers was Furman professor Melinda Menzer, who addressed the history and legality of Trump’s actions on immigration. Here’s are her remarks.
By Melinda Menzer
Every year in Greenville County Schools, our fifth graders celebrate Immigration Day. Each child is given the identity of a 19th century migrant with a backstory of fleeing violence and persecution, and they all dress up — as Russian Jews, Italian Catholics — and immigrate to America. And our children celebrate all that our country has done for refugees – and all that refugees have done for our country.
But while our children learn and celebrate, Trump and Fox News vilify 21st century refugees — telling lies about the migrants coming from Central America, claiming falsely that they are criminals, terrorists, carriers of disease. They dehumanize these refugees with their words, using their lies to justify tear gas at the border. In (December), two children — ages 7 and 8, not even old enough for fifth-grade Immigration Day — have died in US detention.
Almost 40 years ago, the US Congress passed the most important piece of legislation you’ve never heard of — the 1980 Refugee Act. The 1980 Refugee Act put an end to our post WWII policy of passing individual acts for individual refugee crises, making us proactive instead of reactive. The Act sets an annual cap of 49,000 refugees a year, with the provision that the president, in consultation with Congress, can raise that cap as necessary. Every year from 1980 forward, the US has raised that cap for an average of 100,000 refugees a year.
Until now. The Trump administration set the cap for 2018 at 45,000, lower than it’s ever been. But in fact, the US admitted half that number last year, approximately 23,000 people, because Trump did not allocate resources and personnel to process asylum seekers. And last fall, without consulting with Congress, as the law requires, the Trump administration set a cap of just 30,000 for 2019.
All over the world, there are millions of refugees seeking asylum. The need is great. But the crisis at the southern border is a creation of the US government’s failure to faithfully execute the Refugee Act, a failure to faithfully execute our law. Migrants waiting in Mexico, children and adults in growing detention camps — these refugees are waiting because the government is intentionally not doing its job.
It is time for Congress to act. Congress sets our immigration and refugee policy. Tell our legislators that we want refugee admissions to return to their historical, functional level. And tell them we don’t want our tax dollars to pay for detention camps or for Trump’s stupid wall — take a fraction of that money and send resources and staff to the border to process asylum applications so that these refugees can enter the country, find housing and jobs, and begin new productive lives as free Americans.
The Trump administration suppressed a 2017 report about how much refugees contribute to the US economy. But tell our legislators that in Greenville we know how valuable refugees are. Remind them that in this city we have a statue of a refugee on Main Street. Max Heller came to Greenville with nothing; he became a successful business man and then a dedicated public servant. We need people like Max in America.
Or tell our legislators to talk to any Greenville fifth grader. Our children know that refugees, past, present, and future, make America great. Tell Congress now: Refugees are welcome here.
Melinda Menzer is a professor of English at Furman University. She teaches linguistics and early medieval texts, as well as a regular First Year Writing course entitled “Who Speaks Bad English?”