This is not about politics
Reflections on the #MuslimBan and the privileging of Christians in U.S. immigration and refugee policy from an international correspondent who has been covering refugees for the past two years.
In 2009, I was on a road trip cruising in an old mini-van up route 395 in California. The road is like the state’s forgotten spine, tucked in a desolate valley between two jagged, soaring branches of the Sierra Nevadas. I was 19 at the time, exploring the country I was born in, and I had missed a turn. Back then, I was using a paper atlas to find my way. In the dark the night before I had zoomed passed a road that would have taken me into the Sequoia National Forest and eventually connected with interstate 5 and a clear shot to San Francisco. Instead of turning back, I decided to continue on to the next road cutting across the mountains, some 150 miles to the north. As I gripped the wheel, I still remember the exhilarating tingle of possibility. That’s the beauty of the American road trip: the freedom. It’s supposed to be a metaphor for the country as a whole.
Driving the nearly deserted road, I remember watching a fighter jet make passes over the soaring peaks that surrounded me. That’s when I saw it: a wooden sign with Manzanar written in block letters. The name jogged my memory, but I couldn’t place it. On an impulse, I swung the van to the left and pulled into a Japanese internment camp from World War II. It was haunting–the barbed wire; the sentry towers; the remnants of long, low housing barracks. I had stumbled upon a relic of one of the most shameful episodes in my country’s history. If I had blinked, I wouldn’t have even known it was there.
The name was familiar because I had read a novel in a high school literature course about the internment of Japanese. But growing up I had no friends, or even classmates, of Japanese ancestry. I knew no one whose families had experienced that history. So for me it was abstract, remote, pretty much like it had never happened. It wasn’t until I stood at the base of the stark white obelisk commemorating the lives of more than 135 people who died inside the camp’s barbed wire fence that I felt the magnitude of the injustice. There was something about the windswept valley and silent towering mountains at its back, the utter sense of isolation and abandonment, that drove the point home: as a nation we had failed, and the consequences for more than one hundred thousand people were irreversible.
Coincidently, I was recently listening to an interview with George Takei, the actor made famous by his role as Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek. Takei was born in Los Angeles, California in 1937. At the age of five he was forced to move with his family to an internment camp in Arkansas. Reflecting on the experience, he said, “I came to understand how the career that I’d chosen played a part in putting us into those prison camps. It was all those stereotypes… of how Asians were depicted, as either comic servants or the evil villain.” In other words, the systematic dehumanization of Japanese Americans in the culture at large paved the way for the public, and even President Roosevelt, to support such a policy.
Friday, January 27th was Holocaust Remembrance Day, a solemn commemoration of the worst abdication of humanity in the 20th century. I was first assigned to read a Holocaust memoir in 7th grade. When I finished, I continued to read as many more as I could find. The horrors they contained probed at a dark, disturbing question: How could an entire people be sentenced to death simply for belonging to a particular religious group? The words “Never Again” meant something to me: Never again should any people face discrimination due to the arbitrary assignments of birth–nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion.
Friday, January 27th was also the day Donald Trump signed his executive order on refugees and immigration. All refugees are now barred from entering the United States for 120 days. The resettlement of Syrian refugees is suspended indefinitely. And, people from seven predominantly Muslim countries are barred entry for 90 days. If there was any doubt about the intention of this move to discriminate against Muslims, it was cleared up by Rudolph Giuliani, who helped draft the measure. In an interview on Fox News, Giuliani confirmed that this was the embodiment of Trump’s famously promised Muslim ban. “He called me up, he said ‘put a commission together, show me the right way to do it, legally,’” Giuliani said. The resulting executive order also contains neutrally constructed language that, in its application, will privilege Christian refugees over Muslims when refugee admissions resume.
When I rolled over in my bed on Saturday morning to check the time and saw the news alert on my phone, I couldn’t fall back to sleep. As a journalist, I have spent the past four years of my life living in predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Overwhelmingly, I have been treated with respect, kindness and hospitality.
I have also spent the past year and a half reporting about refugees. The word is not an abstract category of people for me. It is a 72 year old man named Bashir, whose house in Syria was destroyed by a tank shell, living in a field with his family for months after the Greek-Macedonian border was closed last year. It is the father I met in southern Turkey who sold the home he worked his entire life to build so he could send his children to Europe to get an education, knowing that it would be years before he saw them again. It is the young, hijab-wearing woman from Damascus who fights tirelessly everyday to improve the conditions of other refugees and often wakes up at night screaming from the memories of terror that visit her in her dreams. It is my friend Robeen from Homs who loves soccer and invited me into his tent at the port in Athens to share a meal. These people, and millions of others like them, did extraordinary things to escape war and persecution. They already faced extreme odds in their chances of obtaining a better future, especially in the United States, which has only resettled around 15,000 Syrian refugees since the war began six years ago. This executive order only makes the situation practically and symbolically worse.
Like the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, it was made possible by the systematic dehumanization of Muslims in American culture. Now, we have a president who is turning that dehumanization into policy with the support of a large enough portion of the population for it to actually happen, despite the resistance of thousands in the streets.
There are steps between exclusion, registry, internment and extermination, but the fundamental logic is the same: A category of people is discriminated against based on the arbitrary assignments of their birth. Our state has now taken action to sanction and advance that discrimination. We have entered the spectrum. Once inside, the dividing lines only separate the severity of the crimes our country is prepared to commit.
As I lay in bed reading the news and watching live feeds on Facebook of protesters gathered at airports, I thought back on the exhilarating feeling of freedom I had on that road trip in 2009. My thoughts then wandered to the scores of people detained in U.S. airports and the untold numbers of others who don’t just want to move, but need to move, and now can’t. I thought about the barbed wire fences and sentry towers at Manzanar and the talk of a Muslim registry and mass deportations looming on the horizon. And a terrifying question entered my mind: How far is our country willing to go?
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Eric Reidy is an investigative journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. His reporting has taken him around the Mediterranean covering numerous topics in nearly a dozen countries with an extensive focus on migration and refugees. In 2016, he was a finalist in for a National Magazine Award and for the Kurt Schork Memorial Award for International Journalism for his work on Ghost Boat — an investigative series published by Medium about the disappearance of 243 refugees in the Mediterranean Sea.