In the summer of 1980, several hundred Cuban refugees, upset at being confined in a detention center in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, tried to burn the facility down and rioted until the National Guard flew in to stop the chaos. This was the summer of future President Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign for governor of Arkansas.
The Cuban refugee riots embarrassed Clinton, who had accepted then-President Jimmy Carter’s relocation of the migrants to his state. About 118,000 Cubans had come to the U.S., fleeing Fidel Castro in what became known as the Mariel boatlift, and Carter sent one-sixth of the refugees to Fort Chaffee with little federal assistance. Arkansas residents were furious over the presence of the refugees. The refugees, in turn, were treated poorly and the riots ultimately contributed to Clinton losing his re-election bid that year, nearly putting an end to a promising political career.
Thirty-five years later, American governors are raising more public objections to settling refugees than Clinton did in 1980. But like Clinton, they are unlikely to be successful in stopping refugees from entering their states.
In the wake of terrorist attacks Friday in Paris, Republican governors in the United States are saying they will no longer accept the Syrian refugees the White House promised to take in earlier this fall. After it was reported that at least one of the attackers in Paris held a Syrian passport and entered Europe with a group of migrants fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq, governors raised security concerns about allowing migrants to settle in the U.S.
"Given the tragic attacks in Paris and the threats we have already seen, Texas cannot participate in any program that will result in Syrian refugees -- any one of whom could be connected to terrorism -- being resettled in Texas," state Gov. Greg Abbott wrote Monday in a letter to President Barack Obama. "And I urge you, as president, to halt your plans to allow Syrians to be resettled anywhere in the United States."
As of Tuesday morning, at least half of the country’s governors said they did not want the federal government to settle Syrian refugees in their states. U.S. states cannot legally block federal orders to accept refugees. But they could make the process difficult, and the situation is shaping up to be a tense battle.
As many have pointed out, the U.S. has a long history of accepting refugees from various parts of the world. Although the country is traditionally known as a “nation of immigrants,” it also has a fraught history with these populations.
Clinton’s experience in Arkansas is far from the only time Americans have not been happy to see new neighbors from outside their country’s borders. Perhaps the most obvious example is that of Jews around and after World War II. While America eventually accepted 130,000 Jewish refugees, it was not until 1944 that President Franklin Roosevelt, under significant pressure from other government officials and the American Jewish community, developed an official plan to help rescue European Jews.
And still, the amount of Jews the United States took was far less than its own quota laws at the time dictated. As Quartz pointed out, extremists during the 1930s and 1940s protested against the “Jewish invasion,” which sounds similar to today when people such as a prominent Catholic bishop in Hungary say Syrians are “not refugees. This is an invasion.”
The U.S. has experienced other refugee controversies over the years, although few have come close to the political situation Clinton experienced in Arkansas. Former President George H.W. Bush strongly opposed a law granting refugee status to Jews from the former Soviet Union in 1989, and some Americans certainly opposed refugees from Vietnam in the 1970s and 80s. But recent waves of refugees have more often been welcomed to the United States, despite bureaucratic immigration policies.
When people fleeing Bosnia and the conflict of the civil war in Yugoslavia came to the U.S., many settled in American cities and have since assimilated and made homes here. When Iraqis fled their war-torn country in the mid-2000s, the New York Times wrote a staff editorial calling on former President George W. Bush to let them in.
All of these situations have unique circumstances, but it should not be surprising that some Americans are once again opposed to migrants taking refuge in their country. Despite a history of some xenophobic Americans, refugees -- when not kept in a detention center and antagonized, as they were in Arkansas -- have also made a life in the U.S. throughout the decades. As governors continue to push back against Obama’s promise to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees, what happens to these people remains to be seen.