America's latest round of anti-immigrant racism has some disturbing historical parallels

After the Paris attack, calls to bar immigrants and refugees from the U.S. have reached a disturbing fever pitch

Published November 17, 2015 8:53PM (EST)

 Donald Trump (Reuters/Rick Wilking)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Rick Wilking)

On Tuesday, the Daily Mail—always one of Britain's more caustically jingoistic newspapers—was raked over the coals for running a political cartoon depicting Middle Eastern refugees as a shadowy horde overrunning Europe like rats. To drive the point home, the cartoon contained lots of rats running alongside the evil foreigners coming across the European border. Many pointed out the overt similarities between the Mail's 2015-style racism and Nazi propaganda about the Jewish threat. Running drawings which would meet Hitler's approval is actually a return to historical form for the Mail, which openly supported fascism back in the 1930s.

By sheer coincidence, Tuesday also saw Donald Trump warning about Syrians "pouring" into the U.S.—a direct echo of a notorious Mail headline from 1938 which complained of German Jews "pouring" into the U.K. Throw in the many governors vowing to bar Syrians from their states (because they might be ISIS plants) and you have a an anti-immigrant recipe that's been concocted many, many times before.

The history of America alone is littered with wave after wave of anti-immigrant bigotry. (You might think that the American capacity for prejudice would have been exhausted by its historic and defining racism towards black people, but hatred always likes to spread itself around.) From the Irish to the Germans to the Chinese—the first ethnic group to be explicitly barred from entering the United States—immigrants have repeatedly been treated with appalling hostility when they first arrive on American shores, seen as a threat to the natural order of things.

Those parallels would be powerful on their own, but it gets worse. Times of war have only served to exacerbate the tendency to whip up a frenzy about immigrants, as certain groups come to be viewed with extreme suspicion. America is the country that interned its Japanese citizens, of course, believing them to be a fifth column, but it's also the country that resisted taking in large numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, partially because people were worried that they would be spies for the Germans. (Seriously.) Even after the dangers that Jews faced were exceedingly clear, Americans still overwhelmingly opposed letting them into the country. Presumably, the Daily Mail and all of those governors would have agreed. Better not to take the risk, right?

Now it is the turn of Syrians to become Enemy Number One. Never mind that they're trying to escape both ISIS and Bashar al-Assad—about as horrific a combination as any people has ever faced. Never mind that all of the Paris attackers appear to be EU citizens, not refugees, or that refugees to the United States face an extremely lengthy and cumbersome vetting process. When you're trafficking in cheap racism and fear, you don't need facts.

It is a safe bet that the people currently racing to keep those nasty Syrians out of America and Europe would preach their opposition to Japanese internment, or say that the relative indifference shown to Jews during World War II is a shameful part of history. They do not seem to realize that they are writing another chapter of that history themselves. That is no great surprise, though—we never do learn, do we? ISIS must be overjoyed.

By Jack Mirkinson

Jack Mirkinson is a writer living in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @jackmirkinson.

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Donald Trump Immigration Paris Attacks Racism Refugees