“We cry in anguish and pain. We show our wounds. We call for help. The crowds on the shore throw out some handful of pennies that fall leaden into the waters. Our cry has not been understood.”
— Aghavnie Yegherian (The New Republic, June 2, 1921)
“There is literally no excuse for large-scale refugee resettlement in the United States,” says Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank in an ordinary, nondescript suite of offices on Washington, DC’s K Street.
Over the past several years, Krikorian has led an organization focusing exclusively on researching the “economic, social, demographic, fiscal, and other impacts of immigration to the United States.” And he’s done very well for himself. Public figures like Donald Trump, Stephen Miller (Trump’s key advisor on immigration and widely credited as the architect of the travel ban and the family separation policy), Steve Bannon and basically everyone at Fox News play overt and starring roles in our political drama. But Krikorian’s lack of visibility belies his influence. He has been instrumental in the Trump administration’s drive to sharply curtail entry to the United States by immigrants.
Krikorian says his crowning moment was when he torpedoed a bipartisan Senate attempt in 2013 to create a path to citizenship for nearly 11 million people living in the country illegally. He used influential conservative publications, like the National Review, to pillory Republicans like Marco Rubio, who at the time favored immigration reform. And when journalist Jose Antonio Vargas came out as an undocumented immigrant back in 2011, Krikorian emerged as an outspoken adversary, telling NPR that Vargas should self-deport back to the Philippines.
“Our take on it is really that a modern society has no need for any immigration,” he said during the interview. “Our land is settled, we’re a post-industrial society, and so … from our perspective, we need to start from zero… and then say, ‘Are there groups of people whose admission is so compelling that we let them in despite the fact that there’s no need for this sort of thing?’”
Fifty-eight years-old with a dry, disarming sense of humor, Krikorian is an interesting case. He is the grandson of Genocide survivors, who believes adamantly that the type of immigration that took place when his grandparents fled the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the century is in stark contrast to the type of immigration taking place today. In fact, his Armenian heritage has been instrumental in shaping the person he is today. In the 1980s, he spent time in Soviet Armenia while he was a graduate student at Tufts—two years at Yerevan State University (YSU) at a time when a more liberal version of the Soviet government began encouraging ties with the West. (“I guess they wanted to introduce socialism to students from the West…it worked, but probably not in the way they intended,” he joked.) He audited classes at YSU, while working on his thesis about the role of the Armenian church shaping Armenia’s national image.
Krikorian seems to have relished the time he spent traveling to other parts of the USSR with fellow Western students. He managed to visit Tbilisi, a gorgeous drive from Yerevan nowadays, but a particularly daunting one 30 years ago. (“See how much you enjoy it when there are no paved roads,” he said, chuckling.) He also made a trip to Baku at one point (though this was initially planned as a road trip that would’ve taken him through Nagorno-Karabakh, part of the Azerbaijani SSR at the time: “They did not want a bus full of Westerners driving through Artsakh.”). But it was his time in Armenia that he looks back on with the greatest fondness.
How can the grandchild of forced migrants fleeing the Genocide, someone with such a deep understanding of where they came from, come to hold such contrasting views on modern immigration?
“Look, there’s really no difference between a barely educated Guatemalan immigrant now and an Armenian refugee that came here 100 years ago,” he said, brushing aside concerns that his policies appear intent on reducing a specific type of immigrant. Rather, he said, declines in the need for unskilled labor in agriculture and manufacturing (in no small part due to increased use of automation in those sectors) are what motivate his anti-immigration stance. Compared to immigrants from his grandparents’ era, today’s immigrants are faced with a lack of upward mobility and opportunities for personal and professional advancement. “They’re not here to rip us off,” he said bluntly, “They just can’t earn enough money to support themselves. So the onus is on the government. It’s on the taxpayer. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not fair to us.”
Unlike some of his client-facing counterparts (think: Donald Trump), Krikorian’s arguments are rational and persuasive. They revolve primarily around revenue, automation, the decline of manufacturing and dwindling opportunities for both native-born Americans and immigrants alike in the late capitalist era. He veered away from various cultural, racial and linguistic signposts, though he did admit that technology has made it somewhat harder for immigrants to fully assimilate into American society. (Whereas earlier immigrants to America could “pull up their roots and plant themselves in a new country, now you can Skype home, FaceTime whenever you want…you’re living in two different worlds.”)
A supporter of Trump’s travel ban, Krikorian is convinced that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees over-inflates the number of global refugees truly in need. He maintains that refugees should be resettled in the U.S. “only if they have literally nowhere else to go.” Furthermore, he argues that privately owned institutions, like churches, mosques and universities, should assume responsibility for helping newly-settled refugees assimilate to the country, rather than the state.
While also returning to the tried and true conservative well of “the taxpayer’s burden,” Krikorian does see the parallels between survivors of the Genocide like his grandparents and people from the seven countries affected by the travel ban now. Distancing himself from the nativist, reactionary wing of the Republican Party, in which where you’re from most certainly matters, Krikorian argues otherwise. “It doesn’t have anything to do with where they’re from. We’ve changed. Not them,” he said.
When viewing the refugee question through a prism, specifically in the context of how Armenians could theoretically be affected by Trump’s policies, Krikorian takes an ardently nationalist stance. When I ran a hypothetical question by him about an Armenian family in Syria or Iran, Krikorian said, “Those people have a place to go: Armenia. If your goal is promoting the long-term interests of the Armenian nation, why would you encourage the siphoning off of children and grandchildren who won’t really be Armenian anywhere?”
Speaking with Krikorian is eye opening. He is an influential director of a prominent think tank descended from Genocide survivors, someone who studied in and backpacked around the crumbling edifice of the late-period USSR, and who now supports a human embargo on several of the most desiccated countries in the world. He was raised among Armenian traditions and didn’t learn English until kindergarten, while his childhood was spent shuttling around the east coast and midwest. He is an almost militant supporter of the Armenian cause, claiming that our refugee policies are “fundamentally contrary to the interests of the Armenian people” and how we “can’t promote resettlement without acknowledging our descendants are going to be lost to the Armenian nation.” I’d learned a great deal from a prominent member of the Armenian-American community who dipped into his own experiences as a grandson of survivors to take the opposite line on refugee entry to the U.S. Now I needed to find his opposite.
It’s what he calls immigration conflation. “When we combine three separate issues, like security/terrorism/gang violence, economic concerns, and moral/ethical questions into one amalgamation, we wind up with several different perspectives. And all we end up doing is talking past one another instead of carefully discussing each one of these three issues separately,” he said. I’m speaking with Dr. Stephen Menendian, Director of Research at UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. The great-grandson of a man who survived the Hamidian Massacres, the late 19th century event in which nearly 300,000 Ottoman Armenians were ritualistically slaughtered and widely considered the precursor of the Armenian Genocide 20 years later. Menendian, like Krikorian, has a direct, personal connection to the plight of refugees. His immigration conflation hypothesis is certainly fascinating, with the media, political figures and ordinary citizens guilty of knowingly (but more often than not, unknowingly) throwing a bunch of distinct issues against the wall and lumping them all together. “If you want to have a conversation about economic concerns stemming from migration, have that conversation; but when you start jumping to gang violence or terrorism, you’re weakening your own argument,” he said.
Menendian describes his hypothesis as “talking past one another.” And it’s certainly true that regardless of one’s position on immigration and refugee resettlement, we all tend to argue past one another without ever addressing each concern on its own. Those with conservative positions who bring up valid points about job insecurity and being undercut in labor-intensive industries are lectured by liberals who cite moral and ethical justifications for more immigration. A liberal defending the resettlement of Syrian refugees, framing her arguments around morality, will be shouted down by conservatives hyperventilating about ISIS.
Speaking with Menendian, I realized why Krikorian comes across so persuasively when arguing against immigration and refugee resettlement. Krikorian sticks to each issue separately, largely avoiding dog-whistle subjects like terrorism and gang violence, while exclusively addressing economic concerns like tax revenue and job insecurity. After all, it’s much more difficult to debate someone like Krikorian who comes at you with a single-minded focus than other prominent immigration hawks who haphazardly flit about from topic to topic hoping something will stick.
Menendian recognizes the nuances surrounding the immigration debate and is happy to carefully consider the arguments of each concern (security, economic, moral/ethical). When it comes to refugee resettlement, however, he is very clear on his position. “It is morally inconsistent for any descendants who survived or escaped the Armenian Genocide to oppose refugee resettlement,” he said. It’s one thing for a descendant of the Genocide to take a tough line on immigration. As Menendian stressed repeatedly, “Immigrants and refugees are not the same. That’s why we have international treaties,” he said, alluding to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. So someone like Krikorian is an immigration hawk and happens to have grandparents who survived the Genocide? Doesn’t matter according to this logic. But Krikorian is also skeptical of refugee resettlement, a morally inconsistent position according to Menendian, particularly for someone directly descended from Genocide survivors. Trying to separate these two groups (immigrants and refugees) and learn about how the average Armenian-American feels on this matter will be my next step.
“These new arrivals did not come out of necessity, but rather, they just wanted a better/different life…these new arrivals feel entitled and don’t seem to assimilate. It’s great that they maintain their language for the next generation, but it’s off-putting when that’s all one hears in stores and malls. In my city (Dearborn, Michigan) we have the largest Arab population outside of the Middle East and, although the food is great, sometimes one can become nervous by their actions, dress and speech.” This comment came from an anonymous Armenian-American participant in a survey I conducted back in February. The participant begins their response by stating that they identify with refugees and immigrants because of the experiences of their own ancestors, Genocide survivors. But they proceed to qualify their remarks with lines like “my relatives did not sponge off of society,” “they worked hard and appreciated being allowed to come into this country,” and “all the men worked hard for their families and raised honest American children.” These not so subtle implications are clear: our relatives, the ancestors of one of the most traumatic events of modern history, are nothing like the people trying to get into our country now. Our grandparents and great-grandparents worked hard and assimilated into the American paradigm. These people now just want to leech off of society and live amongst themselves.
There’s a strange sort of similarity among a lot of the comments on this survey. Most of the comments are of a very centrist, inoffensive nature. “Immigration is good…it helps our economy grow.” “America is a melting pot.” “We’re all immigrants!” But buried beneath all of these comments in an insidious web lie fears about assimilation, the most dramatic example being the comment I described above. After sifting through survey comments and interviewing random Armenian-Americans from around the country, many of whom tend to hold moderately liberal views on immigration and refugee resettlement provided the newcomers “act American,” I began wondering whether our specific ethnic group was ever the target of such scorn and ire amongst our fellow Americans.
Fresno, a nondescript city in California’s Central Valley was one of the first hubs on the West Coast for Armenian migration to the United States. The population especially began to swell during the Hamidian Massacres at the end of the 19th century. With a climate similar to eastern Anatolia, the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, and Kessab on the Syrian Mediterranean Coast, Fresno was a desirable area for Armenian refugees fleeing the massacres, most of whom had farming in their veins. But Fresno wasn’t very interested in Armenians. In his doctoral dissertation completed in 1930, social psychologist Richard LaPiere examined the prevailing set of attitudes in largely rural Fresno County during the 1920s. In a series of interviews and questionnaires based on hypothetical scenarios with 610 non-Armenian participants, LaPiere revealed high degrees of prejudice, with a majority of participants associating their Armenian neighbors with undesirable stereotypes. In the study, LaPiere found that 84 percent of participants would not admit Armenians to private clubs, 64 percent would not hire Armenians, 61 percent would not allow their children to have Armenian friends, and 52.7 percent supported unequivocally blocking any and all Armenian migration to the United States. Meanwhile, common stereotypes associated with Armenians included dishonesty, greed, criminality, abuse of personal charities and social services and litigiousness. Dishonesty and greed have long been used to tar Armenians, all the better with which to demonize them and stir up popular frenzy during an inevitable pogrom. Opinions on criminality and abuse of welfare had no basis in reality at the time of the study, with lower crime rates among Armenians in Fresno County and a lower proportion seeking charitable services and social welfare benefits than their white, non-Armenian neighbors. The only sentiment among participants that had a kernel of truth was the Armenian propensity for litigation.
My survey questionnaire revealed overt concerns regarding assimilation and how newer immigrants and refugees were not adapting to America as easily as they claimed their grandparents and great-grandparents did. But what does assimilation even mean? It seems like an innocuous process in which a minority group begins to more closely resemble the dominant, majority group. But in this context, doesn’t assimilation really just mean the WASPification of brown people arriving from the Global South? The concern among survey and interview participants with assimilation, undoubtedly stemming from both liberal and conservative media, reveals the paradigm in which immigrants and refugees have to contort themselves into in order to be accepted as truly American: the need to be and act “white.”
Throughout the 1920s, Armenians and other recent arrivals to America engaged in a series of infamous court cases to prove their “whiteness.” At stake was naturalized citizenship. Although the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to newly freed slaves throughout the former Confederacy and the Reconstruction-era Congress extended naturalized citizenship to immigrants from Africa, until 1952 “white” was the only criterion non-African immigrants needed to fulfill in order to get citizenship. As such, the legal battles fought over the course of the decade revolved around assumptions, stereotypes, actual measurement of skin tones and hues, and warped race science based on even more warped, white supremacist constructed racial hierarchies.
“The yellow or bronze racial color is the hallmark of Oriental despotisms,” wrote a federal judge in 1923, establishing the benchmark that Armenians would need to clear in order to be identified and perceived as “white.” Straddling two continents, modern Armenia (along with the historical homelands of the Armenian people) has long had one foot in Europe and the other in Asia. Although not as rigid to be defined as one or the other now, ask around the Diaspora and the streets of Yerevan and more people will tell you that Armenians are European. Why is that? What does Europe signify that Asia does not? The concept of Europe is intertwined with civilization, social progress, culture, the arts, beautiful cities, the center of intellectual debate, etc. Asia, just like that federal judge wrote nearly a century ago, is nothing but corruption, stagnation, and backwardness. Though it may seem silly and outrageous now, such artificial constructs were used as the one and only legal basis during the 1924-1925 United States v. Cartozian case, in which the federal government sued to strip Oregon-based rug merchant Tatos Cartozian of his naturalization papers. The reason? That Armenians were Asiatic rather than European. A group called the Armenian Naturalization Committee quickly sprang to Cartozian’s defense, enlisting two key witnesses (anthropologists Franz Boas and Roland Dixon) to definitively prove both biologically and behaviorally that Cartozian and his fellow Armenians were indeed “white.”
Cartozian’s case took place during a revival of “scientific racism,” a movement that used bogus claims to prove that some races were definitely superior to others, with the principles of eugenics gaining in popularity in both an increasingly nativist America and post WWI Germany. Thus, Boas began his defense of Cartozian by sharing his correspondence with several doctors regarding the “blue lumbar spot,” a temporary pigmented spot at the bottom of the spine noticeable until a few weeks after birth. While supposedly extremely rare in European babies, the “blue lumbar spot” was “quite common among children of parents of the Mongoloid race, such as Chinese and American Indians.” So, were there any appearances of the “blue lumbar spot” among Armenian babies? Medical professionals at the time stated that there had been no known appearances of this spot among Armenian infants. Biologically, Armenians had been proven “white.” Meanwhile, Dixon argued that based upon assimilation patterns in Europe, Armenians had proven that they could integrate into societies while making positive contributions. Citing Armenian populations in France, Germany, Russia, and Italy, Dixon claimed that Armenians in each of those countries had “mingled and mixed freely with the population and intermarried with them, and made themselves distinguished in letters, arts, and sciences in one way or another.” He then went on to link assimilation in Europe to assimilation in America, showing that a higher percentage of Armenian men married outside of their own ethnic group than both Irish men and Italian men.
On August 13, Acting US Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cucinelli appeared on CNN and, days after attempting his own reactionary rewrite of the Statue of Liberty poem, openly declared that that epithet no longer applied. According to Cucinelli, the Statue of Liberty poem about accepting the world’s tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to be free was really about “people coming from Europe.” Cucinelli’s statement blatantly ignores the fact that early 20th century immigrants arriving from Southern Europe and the former Ottoman Empire were themselves subjected to open displays of discrimination and prejudice. It also reinforces the open racism wafting out of the White House, out of our immigration officials, and out of the Republican Party. Cucinelli’s CNN appearance came during a particularly brutal and heart-wrenching summer that focused renewed attention on the ongoing plight of children detained without their parents in abhorrent, filthy conditions monitored by indifferent authorities, ICE raids on poultry plant workers in Mississippi (with the companies receiving absolutely no form of punishment at all), and massacres mere hours apart in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas, where the gunman in the latter mass shooting openly aligned himself with the same white supremacist ideologies of the accused Charleston church shooter and the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shooter .
In July, there was a news story about the White House attempting to slash refugee admissions into the US next year to zero. This is on top of the never-ending, labyrinthine system of hoop-jumping that asylum seekers on the southern border have already been subjected to. These stories should appall any descendant of genocide survivors, be they Armenian, Jewish, Cambodian, Rwandan, Bosnian or Darfur. People who have only known persecution throughout history should stand with the oppressed now and see their plight. Based on genocide scholars’ own interpretations of the legal definition of the term, we’ve already made our way through several of the beginning stages. Throughout my interviews, I noticed a trend in which the people I spoke with attempted to cleave a divide between refugees and asylum seekers, conceding that the US should most certainly help people fleeing war and chaos, but that asylum seekers needed to get in line and get into the country legally. These labels are artificial constructions. Under U.S. law, refugees are people fleeing persecution by reason of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a distinct social group. Young children and their mothers fleeing gangs in Honduras don’t qualify, even though the terror is just as visceral as that of a warzone. As Dr. Menendian said, from the perspective of a descendant of a genocide survivor, opposing the admission of these people into the United States is “morally inconsistent.”