Saturday, February 24, 2018

Closing the Gate and Loving the Neighbour

Published in the Fiji Times - Off the Wall  with Padre James Bhagwan
1st February, 2017

In the past weekend, two items of news caught my attention.

The first was the immigration and refugee ban enacted by US President Donald Trump. The second was the story of the Iranian young man who fled from Papua New Guinea and is seeking refugee status in Fiji.

CNN has described Trump’s travel ban on seven Muslim-majority nations as, “an early defining moment for his presidency and an inflection point in America's posture toward Islam and the outside world that could resonate in history.”

On Monday, Al Jazeera published an article on six other occasions in which the United States have banned immigrants. The article stated that over the past 200 years, successive American presidents have placed restrictions on the immigration of certain groups.

Signed into force on 6th May, 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, banned "skilled and unskilled labourers and Chinese employed in mining" from entering the US for 10 years and was the first significant law restricting immigration to the country. It came at a time when the US was struggling with high unemployment and, although Chinese made up a very small segment of the country's workforce, they were nevertheless scapegoated for its social and economic woes. The law also placed restrictions on Chinese who were already in the US, forcing them to obtain certificates in order to re-enter if they left the country and banning them from securing citizenship.

The Geary Act of 1892 placed additional restrictions on Chinese residents of the country, forcing them to register and to obtain a certificate of residence, without which they could be deported. This changed in 1943 with the Magnuson Act - which allowed some Chinese immigration and for some Chinese already residing in the country to become naturalised citizens, but which maintained the ban on property and business ownership. This came at a time when China was a US ally during World War II.

As millions of people became refugees during World War II, US President Franklin D Roosevelt argued that refugees posed a serious threat to the country's national security. Drawing on fears that Nazi spies could be hiding among them, the country limited the number of German Jews who could be admitted to 26,000 annually. And it is estimated that for most of the Hitler era, less than 25 percent of that quota was actually filled.

In one of the most notorious cases, the US turned away the St Louis ocean liner, which was carrying 937 passengers, almost all of whom are thought to have been Jewish, in June 1939. The ship was forced to return to Europe, where more than a quarter of its passengers are thought to have been killed in the Holocaust.

Signed by President Theodore Roosevelt on March 3, 1903, the Anarchist Exclusion Act banned anarchists and others deemed to be political extremists from entering the US. This followed the fatal shooting in 1901 of President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz, an American anarchist who was the son of Polish immigrants.The act - which was also known as the Immigration Act of 1903 - codified previous immigration law and, in addition to anarchists, added three other new classes of people who would be banned from entry: those with epilepsy, beggars and importers of prostitutes.

The act marked the first time that individuals were banned for their political beliefs.

Passed by Congress on August 23, 1950, despite being vetoed by President Harry Truman, the Internal Security Act of 1950 - also known as the Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950 or the McCarran Act - made it possible to deport any immigrants believed to be members of the Communist Party. Members of communist organisations, which were required to register, were also not allowed to become citizens.

Truman opposed the law, stating that it "would make a mockery of our Bill of Rights".

Sections of the act were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1993. But some parts of the act still stand.

Following the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, during which the US embassy in Tehran was stormed and 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days, American President Jimmy Carter cut diplomatic relations with and imposed sanctions on Iran. He also banned Iranians from entering the country. Today, Iranians have again been banned - one of seven Muslim majority countries included in Trump's executive order.

People Living With HIV/AIDS
Under President Ronald Reagan, the US Public Health Service added Aids to its list of "dangerous and contagious" diseases. Senator Jesse Helms' "Helms Amendment" added HIV to the exclusion list.In 1987, the US banned HIV positive persons from arriving in the US. The laws were influenced by homophobic and xenophobic sentiment towards Africans and minorities at the time, as well as a false belief that the HIV virus could be spread by physical or respiratory contact. Former US President Barack Obama lifted it in 2009, completing a process begun by President George W Bush.

On the way home the other day the conversation between my wife and I drifted to the new US leadership and the beginning of Mr. Trump’s presidency. His opening words at the address given at his inauguration were ““From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land.”

This new vision was stamped by the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Ever the history teacher, my wife mentioned that it seemed that the US would now revert to the isolationism it practiced from the War of Independence until World War Two. However, she added that historically isolationism, the shunning of alliances with other countries and refusal to be involved in the affairs of other nations, had been a contributing factor of the world wars.  The is also the thinking that the isolationist policy will eventually morph into imperialism, again another contributing factor for the world wars.

What is interesting about the original decision by Mr. Trump’s political ancestors to adopt the policy of isolationism was that the American colonies were populated by many people who had fled from Europe, where there was religious persecution, economic privation and war. Their new homeland was looked upon as a place to make things better than the old ways.

This new ban seems to ignore that.

More than 2,000 faith leaders, many of them Christian, have signed a letter to urge the US Congress not to ban refugees according to religion or nationality. Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, pleaded with fellow evangelicals—who voted for Trump overwhelmingly—to not let “alternative facts” drive refugee policy. The president of World Relief, a humanitarian organization affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals, said, “Any limitation against any vulnerable population is to fly in the face of human dignity, of people made in the image of God.”  

Rev. Steve Martin, communications director for the National Council of Christians—one of the largest coalitions of Christian churches in the country said, “I’ve been away of the rising tide of Islamophobia for a number of years. I can’t even believe that things are getting as bad as they are—that state sponsored persecution of a class of people is happening.”

Now in Fiji we have a young Iraqi seeking refuge. Sadly, already social media is abuzz with comments not addressing his plight, as a boy who fled torture in Iran, was held on Manus Island for more than three years, whose time in PNG has been punctuated by beatings, bullying, imprisonment, illness, suicide attempts and living on the street in Lae, one of the country's most dangerous cities. (Source: Michael Gordon, Sydney Morning Herald). The focus is on Loghman Sawari’s nationality and his religion, not on his humanity, his dignity, his life.

Speaking at the United Nations in 2015, Fijian Prime Minister warned of a refugee crisis caused by climate change. Already we have internal refugees in the aftermath of cyclones and flooding.

How does our treatment of people in need reflect who we are and what we really believe?

Our culture is supposed to be one of hospitality. Or is that only reserved for the paying tourist and not the refugee? We say “Mai kana,” to people walking past as we eat. Are we willing to sit and share with those different from us or only our friends?

For the majority Christians in Fiji, what does our faith tell us to do? Here are the words of a man who fled persecution as an infant and lived as a refugee for the first three years of his life. They are the words of the one who Christians believe came because God so loved the world.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus  provides a litmus test for entrance into heaven. At the Last Judgment, he will say to people, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” And people will say, “When were you a stranger and we did not take care of you?’ And he will say, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

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