A political tale in exploitation and opportunism.

Being an avid follower of current affairs, and having studied abroad in America, these two neatly combine to result in my  following of American politics.

I will follow American news stations and publications online and via social media. If uni work causes me to be a night owl, I will flick through American news stations. I receive daily emails from news publications, providing me with round-ups from the day before and an analysis of the current political scene.

So naturally, I was aware of the recent events in the House of Representatives this Thursday. On the 19th November, lawmakers were to vote on the recently proposed bill, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act. This bill, introduced to the floor in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris on the 13th November seeks to postpone the entry of Syrian refugees into the US, and calls for an increase in the vetting process prior to gaining entry. The bill passed the floor vote, 289 in favour compared to 137 votes against.

Having went to bed thinking about the vote, I realised I already knew what the result would be. And on reading the result the next morning, I sighed. Not in surprise, no – more in exasperation.

What a sad showing of political expediency. What an obvious exercise in political exploitation of the Paris attacks.

What a display of political opportunism.

The Republican party control Congress, courtesy of their collective acquired victories in the November 2014 midterms. It is no secret that when Congress is controlled by the party in opposition to the President, partisan politics will run rampant. In sum, political opportunism is seized by many US politicians, hoping to exploit current affairs and issues in such a way as to present their party and de facto themselves in a positive light, whilst arguing the President’s actions have been wrong, weak, ineffective and so on. This is readily evident in the clash over immigration and the US plan, spearheaded by Obama, to accept Syrian refugees.

During the summer, when the migrant crisis was realised for what it is – an exodus of desperate souls fleeing destruction and death in Syria and neighbouring countries – the US announced plans to accept around 10,000 migrants. Obama stated his intent to accept these migrants, and also immediately the backlash from the Republican party commenced. This backlash, having been present since the summer, has now taken a new turn and increased following the attacks in Paris last week. The vote in favour to pass the bill on Thursday was therefore essentially a vote in favour of stopping Obama’s planned programme to resettle Syrian refugees.

We could argue Obama was seizing upon political opportunism in the summer in his announcement of the US acceptance of Syrian refugees. Consider his position: he is essentially a lame-duck President, serving out his last term.  In under a year, Americans will vote for a new President and Vice-President. Obama, like many politicians about to leave office, must surely be considering his legacy, and wants to seize every opportunity available to carry out his personal political plans before he must exit the White House. What better way to validate his Democrat credentials in an important year by portraying himself as the man who help save fleeing refugees? Moreover, the Democrat Presidential candidate (whomever they may be – my money is on one Hillary Clinton) can utilise this immigration platform for themselves, promising to continue accepting those wishing to embark on the infamous ‘American Dream’. This will certainly make the Democratic party more favourable to Hispanic voters, that all-important, consistently growing section of the US electorate.

Conversely, we could argue that the recent actions of the Republican party are examples of blatant political opportunism. They know Obama is serving out his last term, thinking about his political legacy. They know too that to be in such a position is restrictive, made even more so by the fact that the Republicans dominate Congress. Republicans are aware that this is an important year, in the lead-up to November 2016. Their Presidential candidates will be seeking to exploit any decision from the White House pertaining to immigration to argue against ‘illegals’, those who take US jobs and who fail to assimilate into the US way of life.

One such candidate, a certain Donald Trump, has made controversial statements regarding immigration. He has been accused of sweeping generalisation and stereotypes: stating that many Mexican ‘illegals’ commit criminal acts when in the US. He has also advocated the building of a ‘great, great wall’ on the Mexican-US border, and argued that Mexico does not send ‘the right people’ into the US. Whilst he has been criticised by many within the Hispanic community, no doubt he has support among some within the electorate.

But he recently has turned his attention away from Hispanics, and now focuses instead on refugees, and even American Muslims. He has openly called for increased surveillance of American Muslims, and seems to be open for faith-based identification, such as the use of ID cards. Talk about jumping on the political bandwagon. And he is not the only one.

Obama’s resettlement plan has been subject to political opportunism from Sen. Ted Cruz, who recently criticised Obama’s plans to still go ahead with acceptance of Syrian refugees post-Paris as ‘utter lunacy‘. He went on to say:

“At a time when ISIS has declared war, at a time when radical Islamic terrorists want to murder as many Americans as possible, at a time when the Obama administration admits it can’t vet these refugees… it is the essence of reasonableness and common sense to say we shouldn’t be bringing in tens of thousands of refugees who may include ISIS terrorists…

“And yet Obama, instead of defending this nation, just attacks you and me and every American who wants to keep this nation safe…”

Cruz advocated a system of prioritisation, whereby Christian refugees would be permitted to resettle within the US whilst their Muslim counterparts would be denied until thoroughly vetted – a move supported by another GOP hopeful, Jeb Bush. Note that Bush is having trouble in his Presidential campaign, facing criticism for his advocacy of his brother, President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. His decision to wade into the furore over Obama’s resettlement programme is evidently his means of clawing back into the 2016 race, proving his leadership credentials – and tapping into the Christian electorate, who are expected to support Cruz.

Sen. Rand Paul, the libertarian, believes the US should not accept immigrants, visitors and students from countries facing homegrown terrorism threats. The full requirements in Sen. Paul’s proposed bill includes a 30-day waiting period on ‘all entries to the U.S. in order for background checks to be completed, unless the traveller has been approved through the Global Entry program.’ This proposal would include countries on the visa-waiver programme. This means that countries such as Ireland, the UK, Germany and even France would have their citizens subjected to increased vetting. America will close its country to Europe, in a move that would affect tourists and students.

This wave of anti-immigration and anti-refugee acceptance was did not just come from the GOP 2016 Presidential hopefuls. There was a backlash at state level, too. Political opportunism was seized upon by various state governors. Over the weekend, as the Presidential hopefuls engaged in live television debates, the governors of Alabama and Michigan announced their states would no longer settle refugees due to security concerns. They were joined by the governors of Texas and Arkansas on the very Monday after the Paris attacks. By Tuesday, their ranks had swollen: 30 state governors in total, including Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire (the sole Democrat) had publicly declared their state would not accept Syrian refugees under Obama’s plan.

Obama knew that his resettlement programme was being subject to political exploitation. He addressed the calls for refusing entry to Syrian refugees the same Monday, stating that ‘slamming the door in [refugees’ faces] would be a betrayal of our values’. He showed his disapproval of the prioritisation scheme proposed by Cruz and endorsed by Bush, proclaiming it to be ‘unAmerican’:

“When I heard political leaders suggest that there would be a religious test for which a person who’s fleeing a warn-torn country is admitted…that’s shameful. That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”

The attacks in Paris were tragic. Terrifying to me as a European, highlighting as it did that the concerns about homegrown terrorism were valid, and that such attacks can happen in Europe. Our way of life was under attack that night. Yet European countries have rallied around France, and have come together in unity to show that our way of life will flourish and continue. We will not let ISIS, or other terrorists, destroy or break us. ISIS want to see us divided, want to see us turn on each other – turn against our fellow citizens, simply because they are Muslim, or of ethnic origin. This we will fight to prevent, as demonstrated by President Hollande’s recent announcement that France will continue to accept Syrian refugees. Hollande stated France would honour the pledge made originally made in September: France will resettle 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years.

American politicians are exploiting the Paris attacks to suit their own political interests. Those who already advocated restricted immigration are seizing on the moment to actively block proposals to resettle Syrian refugees, as evidenced not only through the comments and proposals put forth over the past weekend, but the passing of the House bill on Thursday night. That the attackers were mostly born and raised in Europe apparently does not matter: facts can easily be ignored.

Whilst the bill has passed the House, it is unlikely to be voted upon in the Senate, and Obama has threatened that he will veto it, should it reach the White House. So why propose it in the first place, if it has such an unlikely chance to become law? Simple. Lawmakers can demonstrate to the electorate that they are listening to them, and that they are doing something. Moreover, it in turn makes the public focus on the issue of immigration – rhetoric, such as that deployed by Trump and Ben Carson, and the proposed actions from Cruz and Paul create an atmosphere of fear. Fear that America is under attack, fear that what happened in Paris will happen again in America. Fear of homegrown terrorists, fear of imported terrorists – fear of Muslims, generally.

The Guardian reported on the comments of Iowa Congressman Steve King, who commented the bill “brings the public’s attention to this”, and that increased public attention would make it harder for Obama to veto the bill. It may even make it likely that an Obama veto could be overridden by Congress.

In his speech on Monday, Obama mentioned that Syrian refugees themselves are fleeing terrorism, and are simply seeking a safe haven for themselves and their families. Moreover, he warned against political exploitation of the Paris attacks, trying to utilise the attacks as a means to block immigration into the US:

“It’s very important for us right now—particularly those who are in leadership, particularly those who have a platform and can be heard—not to fall into that trap, not to feed that dark impulse inside of us…”

If anything, the events of the past week have illustrated that politics comes before people, at least in the political realm. Politicians, and the media too, paid only lip-service to respective grief and shock. It was easier to exploit the attacks, to seize upon political opportunism. The victims of the Paris attacks are seemingly forgotten. The plight of desperate refugees conveniently politicised. The fact that the vast majority of practising Muslims decry ISIS is ignored. Politicians, lest we forget, have their ow agendas, especially in campaign season. It’s easier, and more beneficial for their campaigns, to stoke fear and create scapegoats.

I studied in America last year. I was one of many international students at my American college, which kindly hosted us and provided us with many opportunities and memories. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in America, that wonderfully unique country which holds many people from different backgrounds, faiths, races – but unites all as ‘American.’ The irony is that the current diatribes from US politicians actually shatters my view, in that they refuse shelter to the desperate, single out their own citizens due to their religion and seemingly wish to prevent international visitors from entering the country.

As I noted in my scholarship application regarding my motivation to study in the US:

Understanding the historical background of the programme and its continuing relevance of issues still prevalent in NI, I want to witness first-hand the cultural integration and diversity of the US. I am curious to see how people from all walks of life and multiple backgrounds could come together under the banner of a shared American nationality and identity. I believe I will return home an enlightened person, having not only witnessed but also lived in a thriving and diverse community where students from a variety of backgrounds can study, live and grow together.

Thus I read of Sen. Paul’s proposals with a heavy heart. He would deny American students with the opportunity to study alongside their international peers, to learn more about the world and expand their horizons. He would deny non-Americans with the opportunity to work and study in the country oft-described as ‘the land of the free’. I had signed up to receive notifications from his campaign team whilst studying abroad, so to receive emails this week describing that in order to protect America, visitors must be rigorously vetted and restricted, I felt shocked – and humiliated.

Moreover, the State Governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad (R) is one of the many Governors calling to reject Obama’s resettlement plans. Iowa was my adopted state, and I remember watching the midterm results which re-elected Branstad come through. Whilst he seeks to reject Syrian refugees, in my eyes he is rejecting the desperate and the needy. He would probably be happy enough to take me in – a white, Christian European – and such prioritisation saddens me further.

I leave you with this: there are no words to fully articulate how I feel at the blatant political exploitation and opportunism witnessed this week. This is not the America I know and love, the America which welcomed me and my fellow international students so kindly and readily. Apparently, in times of terror and suffering, it is better to weigh up political pros and cons in lieu of addressing the safety and care of refugees fleeing death and destruction. It is better to propose sealing your country off from the world, and deny your citizens the chance to meet new people and develop their outlook.

The photograph below is of the International Students’ Club at my host US college. I met many wonderful, interesting people from around the world, and I know that the American students made many a friend from among our ranks. According to Sen. Paul, according to the majority of the House, it would be better for the security of America that we were not permitted to enter – or at least, subject to increased vetting and having to prove we are not terrorists, or terrorist sympathisers.

Politics before people indeed.

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