For political nerds, last week offered a cornucopia. A week ago Wednesday, 11 Republican candidates for president of the United States lined up in front of Ronald Reagan’s Air Force One and squabbled, insulted, demeaned and debated one another. The next night, the three leading candidates for prime minister of Canada lined up and, in a more Canadian manner than their American counterparts (albeit, perhaps, in a more American manner than most previous Canadian debates) did much the same thing.
There was plenty to differentiate the two events. The production values of the American version were Hollywoodesque. The Canadian debate looked high schoolish. With 11 candidates in the American debate, content took a back seat to quips and barbs. The Canadian debate was somewhat more substantive.
What was common between the two was an emphasis on immigration and refugees. With the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe making front-page news worldwide, and immigration a perennial hot button issue in the United States, candidates came at the topic through particular prisms.
The Republican candidates mostly clamored over one another to burnish their anti-immigrant cred. Who could build the highest, most impenetrable wall along the southern border, it seemed, was the worthiest candidate. The day after the debate, a pro-immigrant organization released a video that contrasted the current crop of candidates’ comments on immigration with those of Ronald Reagan, in whose presidential library the debate took place and who is generally venerated among Republicans.
Reagan, at least in his rhetoric, viewed America as a “shining city on a hill” to which people around the world aspired to come and where, presumably, they would be welcomed. Typifying the prevalent approach of current Republican candidates, Donald Trump said before the debate: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Emma Lazarus Trump is not. The American approach to immigration once – before the 1920s and at intervals since the Second World War – was idealized in Lazarus’ poem, affixed to the Statue of Liberty, and it clearly does not demand “the best” from other countries: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me / I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
It can still evoke chills. Chills that are different from those evoked by the language and views of some of today’s Republicans.
What was encouraging in the Canadian debate the next day was seeing our leaders similarly clamoring over one another, but in this case to burnish their pro-immigration cred.
We recognize that some of the people we welcome have endured great challenges, and need resources and programs to learn the languages of our country, develop or adapt their skills, perhaps recover from deep trauma. Piles of evidence prove that immigrants and refugees who come here succeed brilliantly.
Of course, Jewish Canadians especially may be torn between heart and head on this matter. Our families came here, more often than not escaping repression and violence, and we understand the life-and-death implications of immigration policies.
We also understand that many immigrants and refugees today are coming from places that deliberately inculcate antisemitism in their citizens, who have been known to then act out on these impulses once they move to places where Jews exist. However, the current crisis involves refugees who are fleeing violent jihad and are likely to be among those Canadians who are most vigilant against that form of hatred.
Above all, we need to understand that we are one world. We need to address security challenges at home and confront, with our allies, the sources of those challenges. This security imperative impacts on our immigration policy, but we should not delude ourselves or punish those who need refuge by pretending we can immunize ourselves from world realities by closing our doors.