Donald Trump Would Have Blocked My Family
And Many Other Future American Patriots
Late one night in April 1942, the city of Rostok, Germany, erupted into flames. Over four nights of bombing, Britain’s Royal Air Force dropped millions of pounds of explosives on the city. Civilians were warned to hide in their basements, so most survived, but the city’s buildings were incinerated.
My dad, Rolf Joachim Mehlhorn, was not yet two years old. After the second night of bombing, his house was in embers, and his family fled the city. He remembers the 1940s in snatches: hunger, fear, begging for potatoes, walking through forests with machine guns firing in the distance, and finally arriving in the United States just over a decade after the bombing of his birth city.
I thought of my dad when the House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would close America’s doors to refugees from war-torn Syria. The bill garnered support from almost all Republicans, as well as enough Democrats to potentially override a Presidential veto.
As other children of war refugees have written, I can’t help but notice that today’s xenophobes would have kept my dad out of America. Or, in earlier decades, they would have kept out my mom’s grandparents, who came here as Jewish refugees from the anti-Semitic pogroms of greater Russia.
I am biased, of course, but I do not think that keeping my dad out of America would have made the country more safe. My dad became a citizen in 1958 in Ohio, where he earned a degree from Case Western. In the 1960s, he earned a PhD in physics from the University of California at Berkeley. My dad became a hardworking patriot, just like millions of other tired, poor, and huddled masses who came to America.
“Serious, Unbigoted Reasons to Be Wary”?
Nativists argue that Syrian refugees are fundamentally different from European refugees of the past. For instance, Ian Tuttle of The National Review argues that we have “serious, unbigoted reasons to be wary of a flood of Syrian refugees.” A brief review of these arguments shows that they are actually the opposite — both bigoted and unserious.
For example, although Tuttle concedes that the “vast majority of Syrian Muslims are not party to  strains of radicalism and violence,” he suggests that they have “uncertain sympathies” because “The intellectual, cultural, and political traditions of Syria are not in concert with those of the West, and it would be foolish to think that that does not matter.”
Mr. Tuttle seems to believe that this line of thinking is somehow different from the bigotry that had been previously used against Germans, Jews, and other immigrant groups. Using my parents as historical examples shows Mr. Tuttle’s delusional ignorance of history.
My dad, for instance, was a young male “of fighting age” when he arrived on America’s shores in late 1952. He arrived without money, without his father, and without English. His language, habits, and even his name reeked of a culture widely seen as an existential threat to world peace. Twice in the previous few decades, America had tracked and detained German residents due to suspicions of disloyalty in the midst of total war. And, yes, Germans engaged in massive violence against other Germans — German Jews and non-Jews were killed at scale during the Holocaust. In other words, every argument made by Mr. Tuttle and his fellow travelers against Syrian refugees would have applied, in spades, to bar my father from America.
As for my mom, her grandparents were Jewish arrivals from Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century. During that period, nativists such as the Immigration Restriction League waged lobbying and public relations campaigns to bar Eastern European immigrants, arguing that their cultural stock could never fit in America. Jews aroused additional fear for many reasons, including their alleged affinity for violent Communist revolution. Again, Mr. Tuttle’s arguments against Syrians would require no translation to have blocked the entry of my maternal great-grandparents.
Indeed, the logical extension of Mr. Tuttle‘s xenophobia would have blocked millions of immigrants from war-torn and culturally suspicious regions of Europe, Mexico, and the Carribean. To name only a few, Mr. Tuttle’s America would have had no Nikola Tesla (Serbian), Ayn Rand (Russian), Stokely Carmichael (Trinidadian), Mario Molina (Mexican), Enrico Fermi (Italian), Albert Einstein (German), or Elon Musk (African) — not to mention children of immigrants, such as Steve Jobs (whose biological father was born in the Syrian city of Homs).
This would not only have been morally tragic — it would have been foolish for our national security. These men and women built our nation’s economy and inventiveness, which has directly translated into military power and security.
Indeed, immigrants help our country’s security by helping us understand and react to threats abroad. As noted by former FBI Special Agent Asha Rangappa, Syrian refugees “present a unique intelligence opportunity to help prevent a Paris-style attack from occurring here.” Per Rangappa’s argument, this is precisely the type of refugee population that can keep us safe, according to the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
Terrorism is an equal opportunity employer
Despite the overwhelming evidence that such immigration makes America stronger and more safe, nativists assert that at least some Syrians might be prone to terrorism — and that therefore we should have a policy against Syrian refugees.
Unless we apply this argument with irrational bigotry, selectively against people with unfamiliar skin color and religions, this argument rules out every ethnicity and culture in America. The most widespread domestic terrorist group in United States history, the Ku Klux Klan, was built and sustained by native-born white Protestants. The FBI has been compelled to thwart or dismantle domestic terror groups arising from white Protestants, Jews, environmentalists, and Maoists. Unabomber Ted Kaczynski was a third-generation ethnic European born in Illinois. Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph was a devout Christian born in Florida. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a decorated military veteran, was born in the United States to Irish-American Catholics. Other recent native-born white terrorists include mass shooters Dylann Roof (9 killed in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015), Adam Lanza (26 killed in a school shooting in Newton, Connecticut, in 2012), James Holmes (12 killed in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012), and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (13 killed at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999).
By comparison, the track record of refugees in America is awfully safe. As the Niskanen Center’s David Bier wrote in his column “Six Reasons to Welcome Syrian Refugees After Paris,”
The history of the U.S. refugee program demonstrates that the lengthy and extensive vetting that all refugees must undergo is an effective deterrent for terrorists. Since 1980, the U.S. has invited in millions of refugees, including hundreds of thousands from the Middle East. Not one has committed an act of terrorism in the U.S. Traditional law enforcement and security screening processes have a proven record of handling the threat from terrorists posing as refugees.
Additionally, there is zero evidence that refugees become “sleeper” terrorists who later attack. On the contrary, they are more likely to be helpful in fighting terrorism. Quoting Rangappa again,
It’s very unlikely that the next terrorist attack will be masterminded by a penniless family seeking a safe haven from violence and terrorism. The odds are higher that any domestic attack will be propagated by a few individuals already living here, as was the case in Paris (none of the six currently identified suspects was a Syrian national — all were French or Belgian). . . . Our country’s governors should remember that America’s diversity, and the gratitude people have for a country that welcomed them, are potentially our best assets in combating the terrorist threat at home.
Xenophobes defend their anti-refugee stances as tough-minded. As Marco Rubio said, “it’s not that we don’t want to, it’s that we can’t.” To be fair, Rubio has been the least egregious nativist of the GOP presidential candidates, but his statement gets it exactly wrong. Tribalism is not strong-minded, and xenopobic political stances are not leadership. Refugees make us strong — they are future American patriots.