Column: Trump, Refugees and Keeping America Exceptional
It is hard to imagine another week that has done more to erode America’s credibility and moral authority than this past week, the first of the term of President Donald J. Trump.
On Friday, President Trump signed an executive order banning travel — including for green card holders and students — from seven Muslim majority countries, and banned Syrian refugees from entering the United States indefinitely. For refugees coming from other Muslim majority countries, Christian refugees will be given a priority for admittance.
Trump’s executive order is purportedly done out of a concern for U.S. security, but there seems little factual basis to suggest that this will make Americans safer from terrorist attacks. Refugees already endure a rigmarole of vetting and many are fleeing ISIS in the first place. They know firsthand the dangers terror presents, as terror took away their homes. Banning Muslim refugees will likely serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, weakening US security. It is also not clear if President Trump believes Muslims present a danger to U.S. security; all Muslim majority countries Trump conducts business with have been spared from the travel ban. However, as has been the case with most of his policies, the facts are irrelevant. It is, after all, far easier to bully than it is to find a solution.
No one should be surprised. Trump is doing what he promised, even if we were told not to take his promises literally. Paul Ryan and Mike Pence insisted this would never happen, but now it has happened and they stand by his decision. None of this would have happened, of course, had Trump’s party had the moral courage to reject him. His party will have to assume the consequences of his Presidency. A Twitter post voicing occasional disagreement with the President is not enough to clear most conservatives of their complicity in his election. I would hope evangelical Christians — a voting bloc that voted for Trump by record margins — would oppose this. I do not understand why one's religious liberty can ensure one's right to deny services to a person in the LGBT community but cannot protect a Muslim's ability to travel. I do not know how Christians who claim to be facing persecution in America cannot imagine what it would be like if this executive order were imposed on them. I do not understand how Christians like Mike Pence could march for life one day and then turn away refugees the next. Apparently the pro-life camp has a religious test that Syrian refugees do not pass. Make no mistake, people will die who otherwise might have lived should we refuse to accept refugees. At least Trump did not delete any emails, right?
Whether you are liberal or conservative, the moral basis for helping refugees is clear. America — as the leader of the free west — has the ability to save the lives of thousands who flee oppression in search of a better life. This is not a new notion; virtually every walk of American life has been shaped by refugees. The work and worth of refugees is seen all around us: you can see it in your pastor, whose German ancestors fled political repression in the 1800s, and your Irish ancestors who clawed past the clutches of famine and religious strife. You can see it in your Jewish neighbor, whose grandparent managed to escape the Holocaust. You can see it in your professor, whose Polish great-grandparents slipped past the iron grip of fascism and communism. You can see it in me, whose ancestors crossed the Rio Grande and left a bloody civil war behind them. I do not think a wall would have stopped them. You can see it in every American; after all, our colonies were built by refugees fleeing religious persecution. America is not threatened by refugees — America is the product of refugees. The children of America are the children of the refugee, the migrant and the sojourner who searches for freedom. Their names are Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, Madeline Albright and Freddie Mercury, and millions more who enjoy less fame but whose lives hold no less worth. That is who we are.
This is a significant moment in our country’s history. Many apocalyptic pronouncements have been made about Trump but turning away refugees and targeting a specific religion marks a serious erosion of America’s moral authority. Some suggest America is exceptional; if it is true, it is not defined by birthright but rather by our actions. It is by our GIs liberating a continent, our doctors eradicating polio and smallpox and our people leading the free world. As a nation we err often, but we honor our word and keep our gaze outward. However, with this White House, that may be changing. American government may no longer be exceptional.
What is true of the White House does not have to be true of the people. Friends of mine have asked me what they should do in response to an administration that seems at odds with their values, that will hurt many lives and will damage America’s image. I think it falls on oneself to change that image and to show the world that America’s people are not like America’s President. That means speaking up. That means being kind and respectful to one's neighbors. That means taking legal actions to protect the vulnerable and, yes, at times it means protesting and resisting unjust laws. Be worthy of a country whose people have defined its history just as much as its leaders. Just as much as America has been defined by its Presidents who make law, it has been defined by those who challenged laws. It is abolitionists like Frederick Douglass challenging the Fugitive Slave Act, suffragettes who demanded the ballot, marchers who faced police with clubs and attack dogs on Bloody Sunday in Selma, and gay Americans whose blood ran the streets near Stonewall.
Trump is your President, but that doesn’t mean his America has to be your America. You, through your courage to stand for others, your willingness to fight the fights worth fighting, through matching a high mind with a big heart, can define America just as much as Trump can. You can make America worthy for refugees to journey to and risk their lives. You can make America exceptional.