Nativism Has Thwarted American Refugee Resettlement BeforeRoundup
tags: war on terror, Afghanistan, immigration, refugees, Nativism
E. Kyle Romero is a visiting assistant professor of history at Loyola University in Maryland. He has also served as a fellow at the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College.
On Aug. 15, Taliban forces captured the Afghan capital of Kabul, the culmination of its campaign to seize control of the country in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. The stunning speed with which the Taliban moved into the city has led to massive displacement, with hundreds of thousands of people seeking safe haven. In preparation, the United States has opened a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) process that is moving slowly to admit Afghans who worked with the U.S. military. Simultaneously, the Biden administration is in negotiations with other nations to admit the Afghans who do not qualify for the small number of SIVs currently being processed, offering political and economic concessions to countries such as Kosovo and Qatar to house them.
While discussions in the United States over global refugee crises often focus on whether to resettle certain people, the dispersion of refugees across the world has long been a part of U.S. foreign policy. Far from being a clear leader in refugee resettlement, the United States has more often engaged with global refugee movements as border control and management projects rather than as humanitarian crises.
With domestic debates in the United States over immigration increasingly driven by racialized resentment and anti-immigrant sentiment, resettlement of any Afghan refugees beyond those with SIVs could require a political fight in Washington. The prospect of expending political will on refugee admittance has historically prompted U.S. policymakers to instead use less obvious, overseas refugee management techniques, including force and coercion, to avoid domestic political battles.
One prominent case of this type occurred almost exactly a century ago. In the wake of World War I and the collapse of the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, the United States used a variety of incentives, coercion and politicking to disperse refugee flows emerging out of the Bolshevik Revolution and ensuing civil war in Russia. In 1920, the remains of the Russian White Army fled to the city of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). The Allied powers, who had supported the White Army’s attempt to seize control of Russia from the Bolsheviks, had occupied Constantinople in 1919, and the port city served as the safest location for the 130,000 refugees fleeing Russia, consisting not only of White Army soldiers, but also their families and civilian followers.
The newly created League of Nations saw this refugee crisis as an opportunity to prove its value to a world still wracked with conflict in the aftermath of the Great War. The league first turned to the Allied powers of Europe — France, Britain and Italy — who were still occupying Constantinople after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The European nations mostly rebuffed the League’s entreaties to accept the refugees. Although France and England had resettled many of the earliest refugees fleeing from the Bolsheviks, particularly the landed elites and nobility of Tsarist Russia, these last waves of refugees struggled to receive support from the Allied nations.
The European powers largely delegated humanitarian responsibilities to American aid groups in the area. The United States had survived the World War I largely unscathed and with a massive agricultural surplus at home, which meant U.S.-based humanitarian organizations had considerable amounts of leverage and control over administering their relief to war-torn Europe and the Middle East. The British League of Nations representative, Lord Arthur Balfour, commented that the international organization’s role would have to be to convince the American humanitarian groups to take control over the Russian refugee problem in the city.
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