The America We Want to Be

The America We Want to Be

We shouldn’t let Trump’s war on immigrants deplete our capacity for compassion.


Three years ago, when President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, he was met with immediate defiance, as thousands of protesters gathered at the nation’s airports. Although the so-called travel ban was ultimately declared legal—the Supreme Court upheld a revised version in June 2018 that applied to five of the original countries along with North Korea and Venezuela—those protests helped to stake out a moral position on the issue. Yet when the president issued a more recent proclamation in January expanding the ban to six other countries, the news barely made a ripple. Many Americans seemed more preoccupied with the Senate’s impeachment trial or the increasingly rancorous Democratic primary race. Trump, usually quick to brag about his policies, didn’t even bother tweeting about it. Nor did he mention it during his State of the Union address, though he found the time to award the Medal of Freedom to a radio talk show host.

Though it’s shrouded in silence, this new ban, like the old one, will destroy many lives. Starting on February 22, nationals of Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania will no longer be eligible for immigrant visas to the United States. In effect, a Nigerian who resides legally in this country—perhaps your coworker or neighbor—will not be able to bring her spouse or children to live with her. A Rohingya refugee, whose picture you might have seen on your news feed, will not be able to seek asylum here from the ongoing genocide against Muslims in Myanmar.

The expanded ban affects Africans the most. In fact, the four African countries on the list account for nearly a quarter of the continent’s population. I can’t think of an immigration prohibition this wide-ranging since the days of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which evolved into the Immigration Act of 1924 barring all Asians from immigrating. Slowly but surely, Trump has shaped immigration policy to favor “more people from Norway,” as he famously put it, and fewer from everywhere else.

The same principle applies to the first ban, which closed America’s doors to immigrants from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Many of Trump’s surrogates have argued—and the Supreme Court agreed—that the policy was not aimed at Muslims because it also includes Venezuela and North Korea. But the only Venezuelans barred from entry are government officials, and North Korea rarely grants exit visas to its citizens in the first place.

Taken together, the two bans demonstrate that the administration’s immigration policies are not, as it claims, driven by concerns for the safety of Americans or by concerns about vetting standards and information sharing. For example, while it’s true that Nigeria is home to Boko Haram, it is far from the only country with a homegrown terrorist problem. Not long ago, a Saudi aviation student killed three US service members and wounded eight others at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida—which Attorney General William Barr deemed “an act of terrorism.” Yet Saudi Arabia is not included in the ban.

And while Nigeria has a high rate of people overstaying their visas, it is, again, not the only country with this issue. In 2018 more Canadians overstayed their visas than any other foreign nationals. Canada is not listed, either.

Perhaps the biggest indicator that this new ban was not driven by urgent threats is its timing. It was issued on the last Friday in January on the third anniversary of the old ban, as though it were some kind of commemoration. It’s clear that the president is celebrating his success on immigration, a central issue of his platform.

Aside from the bans, Trump has reshaped immigration policy in significant ways. In July his administration announced that it would deny asylum to refugees who did not apply for it in the countries they passed through on their way to the southwestern border of the United States. Under this rule, migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are virtually barred from seeking asylum in this country. In August the administration established a wealth test for immigrants, which would deny green cards to those who have used public benefits or might use them at any point in the future—a determination that is made at the discretion of the immigration agent handling the application. The rule would disproportionately affect lower-income applicants. And just last month, Trump began to conceal immigration agency records. As The Nation reported, the administration quietly designated Customs and Border Protection a security agency, shielding many of its documents from public scrutiny.

Each time Trump changes immigration policy, civil rights groups like the ACLU raise legal challenges in the federal courts. But the Supreme Court regularly allows the president to implement his policies while lower courts hear the challenges. It’s clear that the executive and the judiciary are working together to reshape immigration and, by extension, to determine who gets to be American. Meanwhile, our legislators are watching idly.

The Trump administration’s cruelties toward immigrants have grown so frequent that they seem to have depleted many Americans’ capacity for compassion or action. Instead, we seem stuck in a cycle of denunciation. Every time immigrants are degraded, some people say, “This is not America.”

Well, it is. It will continue to be, unless we muster the courage to do something about it. What is at stake right now is nothing less than the kind of country we want to have. Americans must make their voices heard, whether through public protests, civil disobedience, or the voting booth.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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