I was contacted over the weekend by James Warren, a media writer for Vanity Fair and The Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, asking how it feels to be an immigrant journalist watching immigrants and refugees being turned away.
I told him it’s horrifying. It’s horrifying to see the doors slammed on foreign nationals fleeing a violent homeland, some of whom had cleared the nearly two-year protocols to get refugee status. It’s horrifying to see U.S. permanent residents with green cards who had temporarily left the country be denied re-entry (that order was since modified). It is especially horrifying to see that the U.S. can prioritize refugee admissions based on non-Muslim status.
And for what? These massive disruptions to life and safety were not a result of some new threat. They weren’t sought by the intelligence community. Since Sept. 11, 2001, no American has been killed on home turf by a refugee who came from one of the countries targeted, or whose parents did, according to a study by University of North Carolina. But several came from Muslim countries not on the list, like Saudi Arabia. As for the Sept. 11 attackers themselves, one was Yemeni.
Yet these dictates were handed down at the whim of a president after one week in office, fulfilling a campaign promise to a political base. During the transition, Donald Trump shrugged off national security briefings. And now, when challenged by officials, he or his spokesman choose ridicule.
“Fake tears. I’m gonna ask him who is his acting coach,” the president scoffed, speaking of Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who had gotten tearful talking about the ban.
“Career diplomats? They should either get with the program or they should go,” responded Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, to State Department memos opposing the action. The acting U.S. attorney general, Sally Yates, was shown the door for telling Justice officials not to defend the ban.
These words and actions are an affront to the Constitution but also reflect a level of cruelty that is hard to comprehend. Where is the dignity for Iraqis who served alongside Americans as translators but are blocked just the same? Where is the pandering to Syrian-Americans who voted for Trump and were waiting to welcome family members fleeing annihilation?
Some Sept. 11 survivors with the group, 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, sharply condemned the bans Tuesday. “I’m sickened by President Trump using my mother’s death to justify hatred, bigotry and religious discrimination,” said New Yorker Terry McGovern, whose mother, Ann McGovern, was killed in the South Tower.
I’m not Muslim or from one of the affected countries, and I’m now a U.S. citizen. But emotionally, the actions shake me to my core. I share much with my Muslim counterparts in Pakistan and Bangladesh. We were all once from the same country, and our people still speak the same languages, eat the same foods and dress the same way. I have as much to do with terrorism as any Muslims being turned away at the airports. And tomorrow the targets could be India’s Sikhs, religious group of my mother.
Like every naturalized citizen, I’m an American by choice rather than by birth. I’d like to think that means something to the president. But energized by his white-nationalist adviser Steve Bannon, Trump now threatens to create new hierarchies of people. It’s a safe bet we’re not among his chosen ones.
I’ve been a privileged immigrant. My parents brought me here as a child on visas conditioned on their employment with the United Nations. Before their mandatory retirements at age 60, I had gotten a green card. That authorized me to stay and work permanently and paved the way to apply for citizenship. That was possible because I had a sister who was born when my parents were posted in New York. I was born during assignment in India.
I didn’t need to get U.S. citizenship. In principle, a green card is as good, except you can’t vote. I had an American husband and kids and was secure in my job as a newspaper columnist, where I was allowed to freely criticize governments and institutions (American and others) without fear of reprisals. But the very fact that I could do those things without citizenship made being an American more appealing. Equality, justice and freedom of the press were values enshrined in the Constitution, and a spirit of resistance seemed imprinted on America’s DNA.
Some of those assurances have been whittled down. Under Bill Clinton, even permanent residents could be deported for certain crimes. Though modified, Trump’s targeting of green card holders suggests what’s to come. And for the first time, we have a religious litmus test for entering America. A federal judge in Brooklyn, issuing a stay of deportations, cited an unconstitutional denial of due process and equal protection. Yet Trump’s executive order is hypocritical in saying we can’t admit people who don’t support the Constitution or who would persecute “those who practice religions different from their own.”
On the evening of my swearing-in ceremony, Feb. 19, 1999, we hosted a party and invited guests to share what being American meant to them. One came in a Statue of Liberty costume. One had the words of the Constitution pinned inside her cape. We had animated, lively discussions on rights and responsibilities.
This new America is a far cry from the one many of us swore oaths to. That makes it imperative that those of us who can to stick around and fight for real American values. I’m going to use the journalism skills honed in American academic and media institutions to tell the stories of those shut out by Trump’s America. I owe my country at least that much for all it has given me.
The writer is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.