I have always tried to be fair in these posts and somewhat unpredictable. At the very least, my aim is to cut through ideology (including my own) and interpret facts on the ground in a sensible way. But I am having a very difficult time with President Donald Trump’s executive orders placing a hold on Syrian refugees and travelers from seven targeted countries. When I have been corrected by radio talk show hosts for referring to these actions as “the Muslim ban” because of this or that technicality, I have reminded them that I am from the “if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck school”. Forget the baloney. This is a Muslim ban.
I understand disruption. It is as much a part of the American tradition as our core values of freedom in the Bill of Rights. The colonies were settled and built by disrupters. The American Revolution and Constitution gave us our birth as a nation, a very different nation not based on divine right or family but on a set of shared values. Probably the greatest of our Founding Fathers – Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – breathed meaning into both the need for rebellion every so often and the equal need for a safety valve (the frontier) so that the rebellious could find an outlet for a new life. Disruption is who we are.
But the greatest and most disruptive force in our nation’s history has been immigration and the fact that we welcome newcomers from all places, kick and moan about it, then ultimately watch them work, live the dream, pass the dream on to their children, and regenerate the American spirit. In the mid-19th century there were those who tried to bar Irish Catholics. Then there were the socialists from Germany. By the 1870s and 1880’s, it was Irish Catholics who pushed to exclude the Chinese and succeeded. The eugenics movement that dominated social science scholarship in the late 19th and early 20the centuries cast a wide net of aspersions toward southern and eastern Europeans, Jews, Asians, and the first wave of Middle Easterners. But all of these groups, in spite of the outward hate shown by some policymakers and citizens, built American infrastructure and products, sent their children to schools, and became absorbed into the American mainstream.
In addition to banning Chinese through an act of Congress, this country officially banned Japanese immigration via a “Gentlemen’s Agreement”. Then several decades later, an executive order interned second and third generation Americans of Japanese descent in desert camps. Germans were beaten up in the streets of our big cities and Italians were demonized in popular culture.
We do not celebrate any of these moments. We repudiate them.
And still people from all over the world look to America as the place for opportunity, for a chance to live the dream, and to build better lives for their children. And that is exactly what they do. I live in a small Upstate New York city (Utica) where one third of the population is refugee. In the Utica public schools, 46 languages are spoken and the children are from Bosnia, Russia, Ukraine, Burma, Bhutan, Somalia, Sudan, and so on. In short order they are working at factories, sending their children to community colleges, buying homes, and displaying the American flag. New businesses are sprouting up almost every day. A few years ago, while New York City and the nation were embroiled over an Islamic Center not too far from the World Trade Center, we watched an old Methodist Church be transformed into a wonderful mosque in the heart of downtown. Thousands worship at our mosques, as do thousands pray at our Buddhist temples, and many refugee-filled churches. According to a Zogby Poll, more than in two in three residents in Utica and its suburbs say that immigrants and refugees in the city have been a good thing.
My father came here in the 1920s at a peak of xenophobic hysteria in the U.S. And within five years, he and his brothers had a thriving grocery store that fed, clothed, and schooled my big extended family. Immigration has been a wonderful development for this country. It continues to make us shine among nations because we do it so well overall and in places like Utica, NY. To ban a certain group or groups because of faith or national origin prevents us from experiencing what makes us great – values that others dream about, a rebirth every generation of our spirit, and the potential wealth of work, ideas and drive that allows us to thrive.
Immigration is the disruption that America needs. Mr. Trump’s ban is not disruption. It is disgusting.