Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Holtzman is a former four-term Democratic member of the US House of Representatives who chaired the immigration subcommittee. She is a practicing attorney in New York. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
As the global Covid-19 pandemic unfolds, it puts into sharp focus how the Trump administration’s harsh immigration policies may lead to (yet another) humanitarian crisis – this time along the US-Mexico border, where thousands of asylum seekers are living in overcrowded makeshift encampments, many without running water. If there were a coronavirus outbreak in one of these encampments – which are already short on medical supplies – the results could be catastrophic.
Meanwhile, the President is describing Covid-19 as a “Chinese virus” on Twitter and in news conferences, stoking xenophobia and fear – and continuing to undermine the United States’ global leadership.
It wasn’t always this way. Forty years ago this week, when Sen. Ted Kennedy and I co-authored the Refugee Act of 1980, the United States was a different country. It largely welcomed asylum seekers and refugees, and the Refugee Act reflected that humane view. In the act, our country made a permanent commitment to admitting refugees, based on the international non-discriminatory standard of fleeing persecution, and established an asylum procedure inside the United States.
The Refugee Act was not controversial. It sailed through the Senate unanimously and won overwhelming approval in the House before President Jimmy Carter signed it into law on March 17, 1980.
If Carter had a Twitter account at that time, I imagine he would have pointed to the United States’ proud tradition of welcoming the most vulnerable: the 360,000 people who fled Fidel Castro’s takeover in Cuba in the mid 1960s, the tens of thousands of Jewish refugees who fled the Soviet Union beginning in the 1970s, and the more than 400,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos who arrived here by 1980.
If I had a Twitter account when I was drafting the Refugee Act, I would’ve shared my own personal reasons for supporting it. My mother and her family came to the United States as refugees in 1921, fleeing the communist takeover of Ukraine and the endless pogroms against Jews. One day, members of my family were leading a comfortable, middle class life. The next, they were running for their lives and came here with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Soon enough, with the support of organizations like HIAS, the Jewish refugee resettlement non-profit, they were on their feet. After selling woolen goods from a sidewalk on New York’s Lower East Side, my grandfather established a small but successful business; my mother became a college professor and did classified work for the government during World War II; my brother became a neurosurgeon. Grateful for sanctuary here, my family has paid this country back, as countless other refugee families have and will continue to do.
From 1980 to January 2017 – for 37 years and under six presidents – the Refugee Act worked well. More than 3 million refugees were admitted and overwhelmingly became productive participants in our country, just as my family did.
Yet every year since Trump took office in 2017, he has slashed the number of refugees admitted under the Refugee Act. For this year, it is 18,000, a historic low, reflecting his ongoing battle against admitting new refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers.
Refugees around the world who were hoping to start new lives in safety in the United States are (yet again) in limbo, as our government halts refugee admissions in light of the pandemic.
While limits on travel may be justifiable now, by refugees and others, I hope that this travel ban is not another assault against refugees and ends as soon as the health crisis abates.
This administration has dramatically changed us from a caring nation that provided relief to millions of refugees and asylum seekers into an angry one with xenophobic-sounding policies. It has unleashed a false narrative about dangerous foreigners that has drowned out the voices of the millions of refugees and immigrants who truly made America great.
As we face the health and humanitarian crisis brought on by coronavirus, we must recognize each other’s humanity, just as the Refugee Act inspired us to do 40 years ago.