Rising above public opinion

Let’s face it: Americans have rarely been anxious to open their “golden door” to the world’s “tired … poor … huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

But America has always been great when it has been good to immigrants and refugees.

Less than a decade after the Constitution was ratified, Congress passed, and President John Adams signed, the Alien Act, which increased the time immigrants had to live in the U.S. before becoming eligible for citizenship from 5 years to 14 years.

Another bill, passed at the same time, made it “lawful for the President of the United States … to order all such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States … to depart out of the territory of the United States.”

Of course, we had no polls in the 18th century, so we don’t know how people felt about that legislation, but we did have surveys during the Nazi Holocaust.

In 1939, Sen. Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Edith Rogers (R-Mass.) introduced a bill to allow 20,000 refugee children from Germany into the United States, but it died in committee. Most of the children died in concentration camps.

According to Gallup, two-thirds of Americans opposed allowing even 10,000 of these refugee children into the U.S.

After the war, President Truman asked Congress to take in Holocaust survivors, but 56 percent of Americans opposed allowing any Polish or Jewish refugees into the country.

A differently phrased question in 1946 found 72 percent opposed allowing more Jewish and European refugees into the U.S.

However, with memories of the Holocaust still fresh, and America in the grips of the Cold War, Americans divided evenly — 48 percent disapproved, 47 percent approved — over admitting refugees fleeing Communist takeovers.

Vietnamese “boat people” were less welcome, though. Sixty percent in a CBS/New York Times poll disapproved of President Carter’s efforts to increase the number of Vietnamese refugees permitted into the U.S.

In 1984, 62 percent of Americans wanted the number of refugees admitted to the country “lowered.”

By 1999, it looked like attitudes might finally be changing. Two-thirds supported President Clinton’s decision to bring “several hundred ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo” to the U.S. Of course, the deed had already been done and the numbers were quite small.

In 2014, though, a narrow plurality wanted to deport Central American child refugees from the U.S.

Which is about where we are today. An early January Quinnipiac survey found 48 percent favored “suspending immigration from ‘terror prone’ regions, even if it means turning away refugees from those regions.” Forty-two percent opposed.

Despite public doubts, refugees’ contributions to this country have been incalculable. Without refugees, the U.S. may not have won World War II, deployed a nuclear Navy, cuddled with teddy bears, understood relativity or known to “Get on Your Feet.” Without refugees, we’d have this vast internet and no way to find anything.

But the case for admitting refugees is not merely utilitarian — bring in 10,000 refugees and get one Google and one Latin dance hit — it is rather a moral imperative.

I believe, or at least hope, that if Americans today were asked whether we should have allowed Jewish children into the U.S. or sent them back to the ovens of Auschwitz, nearly everyone would say yes.

If given the chance to welcome Vietnamese refugees or simply watch them drown, we would say, “Please come.”

People sometimes recognize the error of their ways, after the fact, when it’s too late to change reality for the victims.

Sometimes we need leaders who can see past the polls, who can look not at who we are, but rather at who we aspire to be and help us achieve those higher goals.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years. 

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