Mon., Oct. 23, 2017
Former Justice Jones on refugee crisis: ‘We have a lot of soul searching to do’
Former Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Jones, speaking on a panel at the Frank Church Conference at Boise State University today, said he’s concerned that the nation is “turning inward as a country, taking away the welcome mat for immigrants and refugees.” He said that’s something that’s happened periodically throughout U.S. history, starting with objections to people fleeing the Irish potato famine. “People were talking about these people are going to bring crime and pestilence, while some of their sons were fighting for the union side in the civil war and distinguishing themselves,” Jones said. “We saw the same thing just after the Chinese immigrants had finished the Transcontinental Railroad,” with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
“In each of these instances, we looked at ourselves, and said, ‘That’s not us,’” Jones said. “I think we did some shameful things. I think we’re getting into the same shameful activity. We have politicians that are trying to win public office on the backs of refugees and immigrants, and I think it’s shameful.” He was interrupted by applause. “I think in coming years we’ll look back and say, ‘What were we thinking?’”
Jones asked, “What do we have as a responsibility to the refugee community? Well, I can’t think of any country in the world that has taken a larger hand in creating refugees than the United States of America.” He pointed to the Vietnam War, of which he’s a combat veteran. “We helped to create the refugee crisis in Vietnam,” Jones said.
“When Saigon fell in 1975 we heard some of the same comments that we’re hearing today, ‘we don’t want those people, they’ll bring disease, they’ll bring disruption, they’ll be a drain on the economy.’ It really burned me up, because these were our partners,” he said. “I worked with interpreters, South Vietnamese Army officers.” And when “something goes south,” he said, there was resistance to the idea that we should “give them safe harbor over here.”
Jones said the same thing came up in subsequent wars. “We started the war in Iraq, it was one of the stupidest blunders that this country has ever made,” Jones declared to loud applause. “It was completely unnecessary. But you know, there are still 50,000 Iraqis who helped us in that war, who were our partners, who acted as interpreters – there are still 50,000 people waiting to get into the United States who ... helped us as partners. …. But when you have a 45,000 limitation on refugees in this coming fiscal year, certainly you’re not going to be able to meet your commitment to those people.”
He said the same thing goes for people who helped U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the Middle East, Somalia and more.
“I just don’t understand it,” Jones said. “The world looks at who can we support, who has the moral high ground, who can we rely on, and when things go south, who can we trust. And if that’s the way we’re going to act, I don’t think we’re going to have a lot of help when we’re going to need it. We need it in trying to work out the situation in North Korea,” and in Iran, he said. “If we treat our friends and allies so poorly, if it’s a danger to someone to partner up with the United States, where are we going to get our help?”
“I think we have a lot of soul searching to do,” Jones said. “Let’s be the country we used to be. You can’t be a great country unless you’re a good country.” That was greeted with resounding applause.
Responding to questions from the crowd, Jones said he’s worried that the move to restrict refugees from entering the country “goes hand in hand with a little bit of cozying up with white nationalists, who are kind of pursuing the same path to increasing their political strength.” He noted that that’s come up periodically over U.S. history, as well, including moves against Italian refugees who were arriving in the 1920s.
“I think what we need to do is kind of what Idaho did back in the early ‘80s when the Aryan Nations were growing in strength, and that is to start talking about it, and taking an active part in debunking them,” Jones said. “Every citizen can do that. Every person in this room can write a letter to the editor, send a letter to your congressman, saying we don’t like this thing. You know, if we have white nationalists running around, do something about it. If we have people that are bashing refugees, and I think people in our delegation know that’s wrong, but they’re afraid to speak out on it. Tell ‘em we’re not going to stand for that. You’ve got to stand up.”
Jones said one thing he’s done personally is push for lawyers in Idaho to provide free legal assistance to refugees, because they’re likely to be unfamiliar with U.S. laws. A group of volunteer lawyers in Idaho “added a box on their form that people could agree to help refugees, and it wasn’t a short period of time that 50 attorneys said yes,” he said.
Another questioner from the audience, also a Vietnam vet, asked when Jones would run for the House or Senate.
“I think at 75 I’ve done my share of running for anything,” he said amid laughter. “I suggested to my wife that maybe just for the heck of it I ought to run for governor on an independent ticket – she said forget it,” he said. “It’s not going to happen. … But I do intend to try to provide some criticism or guidance for those who do run.”
Jones, a Republican who served two terms as the state attorney general before he was elected to the Supreme Court, prefaced his remarks by saying that after years on the state’s highest court, “you sometimes can’t say anything as a judge. Since I retired, I’m unshackled, and can speak out on things that really distress me.”