The American Historical Association strongly condemns the executive order issued by President Donald J. Trump on January 27 purportedly “protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States.” Historians look first to evidence: deaths from terrorism in the United States in the last fifteen years have come at the hands of native-born citizens and people from countries other than the seven singled out for exclusion in the order. Attention to evidence raises the question as to whether the order actually speaks to the dangers of foreign terrorism.
It is more clear that the order will have a significant and detrimental impact on thousands of innocent people, whether inhabitants of refugee camps across the world who have waited months or even years for interviews scheduled in the coming month (now canceled), travelers en route to the United States with valid visas or other documentation, or other categories of residents of the United States, including many of our students and colleagues.
The AHA urges the policy community to learn from our nation’s history. Formulating or analyzing policy by historical analogy admittedly can be dangerous; context matters. But the past does provide warnings, especially given advantages of hindsight. What we have seen before can help us understand possible implications of the executive order. The most striking example of American refusal to admit refugees was during the 1930s, when Jews and others fled Nazi Germany. A combination of hostility toward a particular religious group combined with suspicions of disloyalty and potential subversion by supposed radicals anxious to undermine our democracy contributed to exclusionist administrative procedures that slammed shut the doors on millions of refugees. Many were subsequently systematically murdered as part of the German “final solution to the Jewish question.” Ironically, President Trump issued his executive order on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Conversely, when refugees have found their way to our shores, the United States has benefited from their talents and energy. Our own discipline has been enriched by individuals fleeing their homelands. The distinguished historian of Germany Hajo Holborn arrived in 1934 from Germany. Gerda Lerner, a major force in the rise of women’s history, fled Austria in 1939. Civil War historian Gabor Boritt found refuge in the United States after participating in the 1956 uprising in Hungary. More recently, immigration scholar Maria Cristina Garcia fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba with her parents in 1961. The list is long and could be replicated in nearly every discipline.
We have good reason to fear that the executive order will harm historians and historical research both in the United States and abroad. The AHA represents teachers and researchers who study and teach history throughout the world. Essential to that endeavor are interactions with foreign colleagues and access to archives and conferences overseas. The executive order threatens global scholarly networks our members have built up over decades. It establishes a religious test for scholars, favoring Christians over Muslims from the affected countries; and it jeopardizes both travel and the exchange of ideas upon which all scholarship ultimately depends. It directly threatens individuals currently studying history in our universities and colleges, as well as our ability to attract international students in the future. It also raises the possibility that other countries may retaliate by imposing similar restrictions on American teachers and students. By banning these nations’ best and brightest from attending American universities, the executive order is likely to increase anti-Americanism among their next generation of leaders, with fearsome consequences for our future national security.
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, like many of his colleagues before and since, did think historically in ways that should inform consideration of President Trump’s executive order. In a 1989 dissent (Skinner v. Railway Executives Association), Justice Marshall observed: “History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in time of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure. The World War II Relocation–camp cases and the Red Scare and McCarthy-era internal subversion cases are only the most extreme reminders that when we allow fundamental freedoms to be sacrificed in the name of real or perceived exigency, we invariably come to regret it.”