Five questions with Gunther Peck

Five questions with Gunther Peck

Gunther Peck is an associate professor of History at Duke University specializing in 19th and 20th century American social and cultural history, comparative immigration and labor studies.

Peck was one of a number of North Carolina scholars with whom we recently spoke about the first weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency. We decided to talk with him a bit more specifically about the issues of immigration and refugees, which have been signature – and controversial – issues for the administration.

1) Immigration and the status of refugees were prominent issues for Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Is it surprising that he’s tackling it as one of the first battles of his administration?

I’m not really surprised he would go after refugees and building a wall so early in his presidency. Some people thought he would do something like infrastructure or something where there is broad consensus.

But going after something like infrastructure does require working through Congress and it seems clear that he wants to do things immediately that he can accomplish himself. And immigration law is really in the bailiwick of the president and has been for a century.

Historically, there has been a great deal of discretionary authority ceded to the executive branch in how they act to create and enforce rules on immigration and the status of refugees. In the case of refugees we had really no statutory law until the 1980. We didn’t even have a consistent definition of “refugee.” During the cold war period more than half of the refugees in the world came to the U.S.

So, this is something Donald Trump can really do himself. And Republicans, having ballyhooed about the expansion of presidential power, are silent.

2) What do you think is the larger meaning and consequence of the President choosing this issue now?

Trump can ban refugees for a period of time, but he has already promised that he’s going to change the definition of what it is to be a refugee. And that is going to be a fight.

Right now he’s relying on executive privilege and custom – but there’s going to be a fight at the end of this 120 day period when and if he does try to actually make law. That’s where he could get into a constitutional fight.

In a larger sense the big, unprecedented shift he’s made this refugee order has been made without, it seems, any understanding of the foreign policy ramifications.

At stake, I would say, is the entire human rights discourse and commitments that the U.S. has been part of really since World War II.

Refugees, to put it in a crass way, have always been assets to American policy. They are a way that we respond to world events, achieve diplomatic ends and honor our commitments.
Trump seems unable to see refugees as something more than a potential terrorist. It appears that as President, Trump is not just turning his back on a series of Syrian refugees or refugees in general but a whole set of values and established relationships and commitments, the way that that we relate to the rest of the world.

Elevating Steve Bannon pushing out people on the NSC from daily and weekly meetings. Those changes may be modest looking but it signals a dramatic shift in the way America relates to the world and what we mean on the world stage.

For Donald Trump there seems to be no Humanitarian interest — it’s America first. He doesn’t realize, I think, the ideological and political opportunity in taking in refugees.

And this shift is alienating allies. It’s an unmitigated disaster for foreign policies and makes America and our allies around the world less safe.

This is why people at the state department are so upset. All of our domestic allies within Iraq have just been criminalized. There are no refugees from there coming here.I don’t know how you can fight a war against ISIS and do that at the same time. It doesn’t make any logical sense.

It only makes sense from a symbolic and theatrical sense. It achieves certain interests at home – it feeds a certain sector of his political base.

3) A Reuters/Ipsos poll found only one-third of Americans think the travel ban makes America safer, but the country is still sharply divided in terms of support for it. Is public sentiment going to matter on this issue or has the die been cast?

The battle right now is for the hearts and minds of the American people. If Trump can enact a ban and not pay a political cost, he’ll keep doing things like this.

But right now the religious right is condemning him as well. He’s getting heat from the neo-cons who justified the invasion of Iraq. From Dick Cheney, for God’s sake.

Time will tell how the debate will work out. But what scares me the most is there’s a way in which, with this immigration order, the refugee order, the debate about the border…he would benefit from a terrorist attack. If there is another terrorist attack, he has framed it in a way that will justify what he’s doing.

The truth is, walls have never worked. They’ve kept no drugs out. They’ve kept no traffickers out. It’s a colossal failure.

The stakes of the border are symbolic — it’s standing up to a racialized threat. But if it doesn’t work, if more people come in, it just generates in his worldview the need for even more walls.

4) What is the likelihood that people opposing these changes – be they in elected office or simply citizens – can effectively push back on them?

As a historian there are two questions that are really important to ask:

First, is the State? If all these State Department people are dissenting — he can’t fire them all. Can they find a way to complicate things, slow it down? They can become a force to be reckoned with. Immigration officials as well – they’ve historically played a huge role. There are a lot of people unhappy with this and they are making that clear.

Second – If the left is going to be successful in changing the script, they have to do more than fight symbols with symbols. Where he’s been really hurt prior to this is when immigrants and refugees cease to be abstractions. The whole Khan story during the convention – Trump’s numbers among military, among veterans, crashed. If they’d held the election right then he would have lost North Carolina.

And we’re seeing that again now, when we see immigrants and refugees who have been dedicated to this country and the way they’re treated. When you see Iraqi translators for U.S. service members treated like common criminals, put in handcuffs…that is more powerful than the symbolic.

5) So in a sense refugees and immigrants end up being, as you said previously, important not just in a political sense on the world stage but important in this political struggle over American values as well?
Immigrants – their voices, their words, their efficacy has been hugely important to this country and they are today. The number of Congressmen and leaders whose parents were refugees…it’s profound. That sort of power is the best way to counteract the symbolic power of the Trump narrative.

Immigrants and especially refugees have a profound understanding of why Democratic ideals matter. They are victims of the absence of that. That’s why they are refugees.