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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Amherst College history program highlights refugee crisis

Associate professor of history Dr. Stephen R. Porter discusses his most recent publication
Courtesy Amherst College Facebook Page

Associate professor of history at the University of Cincinnati Dr. Stephen R. Porter gave a lecture on his recent publication “Benevolent Empire: U.S. Power, Humanitarianism and the World’s Dispossessed” at Amherst College on Thursday.

The title of the lecture, “Benevolent Empire: U.S. Power, Humanitarianism and the Modern Refugee Crisis,” was a reworking of his book’s name. Amherst College History Professor Vanessa Walker and Porter himself acknowledged that the title of his book had been controversial among scholars. To begin, he examined the nation’s history of refugee policies from World War I to 2016.

“By the 20th century, the enterprise had begun to morph into something less overtly sacred, more diversified in its participants committed to the modern tenets of scientific charity and social work and, above all, tied to the project of promoting American authority not just abroad but at home, too,” Porter said.

He argued the United States’ history of refugee policy developed alongside the country’s rise to a global power. He said that overseas Americans and international Jewish people were highly influential to U.S. refugee policy during the first World War, rather than the popularly exampled World War II era. The government needs to consider all the actors affected by refugee affairs to establish effective and successful aid, Porter said.

“That history is dramatically incomplete and I think even skewed without understanding how both state and non-state actors work together, sometimes happily, sometimes not,” he said.

Porter then gave examples of people who were affected: James Becker and families seeking refuge from Latvia. Becker, a draftee unwillingly held back and stationed in Washington, D.C., during World War II, traveled to Europe as a Jewish advocate. Eventually, he joined the Polish army, defending against Soviet invasions and writing about anti-Jewish violence. Meanwhile, Latvian refugees coming into the southern states from their own Soviet attacks penned letters to newspapers, families and friends chronicling their experiences. Porter described how they were indefinitely in debt to plantation owners, living in shacks and occasionally beaten by their masters. The U.S. Displaced Persons program, the first American system specifically aiding refugees, resettled some people directly to places like this.

A few students among the crowd were students of Professor Walker’s “History and Politics of Human Rights” course. This week, the class focused on United States refugee policies. Sophomore history major Charlotte Blackman and freshman political science major Jake Montes-Adams described their class.

Montes-Adams said the class began “with the abolitionist movement in the 19th century” and continued “through modern times and the modern conceptualization of human rights.”

“Another big theme that I think is really central to the class is the name human rights, and what the phrase has come to mean throughout history,” Blackman said.

“A lot of it was how American humanitarian efforts have been constructed through lenses of nationalism, and this sort of ideological imperialism that the U.S. engaged in during the Cold War,” Montes-Adams added.

Porter also shared his thoughts about the current refugee crisis. He argued that the people should consider the positives and the negatives when weighing options in refugee situations.

“The political climate and demographics that have commonly informed American refugee affairs in recent decades, and even in recent months, seem to have ironically somewhat diluted the depth of advocacy that earlier generations of refugees enjoyed,” Porter said. “This observation should alarm refugee advocates trying to determine how to challenge the goals of the current U.S. presidential administration, but I think that alarms can be useful.”

Nate Procter can be reached at [email protected].

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  • J

    John AimoApr 23, 2018 at 7:13 am

    His lecture and as you would expect for a college professor is a bit one sided.

    First the current refugee ‘crisis’ is a bit of a misnomer, many of refugee by their own admission are economic migrants and leave their countries which are usually third world until they find a host which gives them welfare benefits. Notice these “refugees” just happen to only flee to wealthy nations with generous social assistance in europe and the united States.

    and second the refugee program is highly organized by the united Nations. These refugees from exit to arrival have everything laid out, including plane ticket and prior although I think in the Trump adminstration benefits were cut or ended, they got 30k a year from the state department, virtually more than all welfare programs that us. citizens, Americans get. I hardly think you could call those people suffering refugees.

    Second the real crisis is the harm refugees are done in Europe. Although there is attempt to censor the truth, refugees from Africa and middleast are responsible for major problems, hygiene issues(using bathroom in public places), increase in crime(Sweden is the rape capital of the world), chaos, drain on economy as non-productive residents and of course responsible for a large increase in terrorism.

    Before the refugee crisis, Europe was a fairy safe and nice place to visit and live. These so called refugees have caused problems in Europe and Western civilization and may continue to do so for decades.

    • M

      Marie NelliApr 24, 2018 at 5:01 pm

      Mr. Aimo, I don’t know what your sources are for those statements, but they’re not rooted in actual fact. Refugees resettled to the US sign a promissory note to pay back the cost of their airfare–and some 98% of them pay it in full, on time; they receive a small (approx. $1200) “Reception and Placement” grant from the State Department–not $30,000–that goes towards paying for first/last/security on an apartment, basic furnishings that are not available via donations (ie, mattresses, underwear, etc.), so if they’re lucky, they’ll actually receive $100 in cash while the rest is in in-kind donations from the resettlement agency to make up the basic necessities list of one cup/fork/spoon/knife/bowl per person. The US uses its geographic location as a buffer to control access by asylum-seekers who arrive at the borders, something for which Europe does not have the same luxury–again, purely due to geography. As a result, the US seeks only a fraction of the flow of refugees currently fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq and across Africa and beyond. To paint these people fleeing persecution and war as “economic migrants” is dismissive and frankly, ignorant of the true toll displacement and family separation have taken on millions of people in the last several years. Whether or not Prof. Porter’s lecture represented the full picture, I cannot say as I did not hear him speak; however, your criticism above is clearly biased and certainly not constructive. Unfortunately, you have every right to say it, although I have every right to rebut with the actual truth. If you don’t believe me, then perhaps you should visit a resettlement agency and speak with the staff and clients, and ask them to share their histories with you. I have no doubt, if you keep an open mind, that you’ll learn quite a lot.