20 November 2015

America takes its borders seriously and it is religious


There is horror in parts of the European media, and among many Europeans, at the backlash in the US against Syrian refugees. A string of politicians chasing the Republican nomination have declared themselves against the President’s plan to harbour 10,000 Syrian refugees. The House of Representatives voted to make it more difficult for refugees to get in and the internet crackles with outrage about the risk from terrorists hiding among the refugees. State governors are pulling up the drawbridge and a poll suggests that more than half of Americans are opposed to allowing in Syrian refugees.

How can this be?

It is illustrates once again the gulf in understanding between Europe and the US, with both prone to misunderstanding the other. It was once fashionable on the centre-right of the US to call the French – the nation of Verdun and Napoleon – “cheese eating surrender monkeys” when they declined to help invade Iraq. The insult was daft. A weakened France had had a difficult 1940s? So what? So would any country stuck next door to Nazi Germany without the protection of a sea.

Now, we get the European misreading or misunderstanding of the US, on this refugees question.

America takes its borders extremely seriously, as anyone who flies there will testify. Even so, the question of whether it does enough, on its southern borders, to prevent illegal immigration is a live issue that will play a big part in the 2016 election. The idea that Americans have a right to decide who comes in and who does not is very strong in American life.

In Europe, with Schengen and a post-national let it all hang out – who cares about borders? – approach it is different, or has been until now.

But isn’t this US hypocrisy? Isn’t the US itself a nation of immigrants? Yes, and this is not a new debate. In the Progressive Era there was panic about immigration, with advocates of immigration lambasting those who were concerned, making exactly that point. Still, the mainstream view remained that controlling the country’s borders is a basic tenet of American life.

There is an additional complication. The US is more religious than Europe, or specifically it is more Christian. That means that when a candidate such as Jeb Bush says he will accept Christian refugees it sounds bizarre to many Europeans, and to American liberals, but not to many Americans who see it as the norm, as cultural commonsense.

A study by Pew in 2012 showed the extent of the gap. A whopping 50% of Americans think religion is very important, compared to only 17% of those questioned in the UK and 13% in France.

I am not even defending the current US position on Syrian refugees, merely observing that the American experience and concept of self-government and self-interest is different from the British or European experience. Of course, the wackier comments of Trump and Carson in particular are vile. Carson compared immigrants to “rabid dogs” the other day. But they are just extreme manifestations of views that are perfectly mainstream in the US. It’s no good shouting about it. Europeans should understand that it’s their country and they can do what they like.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX