Arriving in a new and less welcoming America after years abroad
On December 5, 2016, I arrived at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Fresh off the plane from China, I was tired and irritable waiting in the immigration line. Then on a TV screen hanging from the ceiling came a familiar face.
President Obama, with his bright, toothy grin, smiled at the arriving travelers. “Americans are some of the friendliest people in the world,” he said in his message, “and they will welcome you to your community … no matter where you come from.” Around me I saw men of every race in business suits, women in headscarves, women in dresses, and people in traditional garb.
I relaxed and felt the pride of returning to one’s country. But my sense of patriotism at that moment was tempered by an abiding anxiety and despair. Imagine what the feeling will be when Donald Trump addresses Americans and foreigners taking their first steps into our country. What message will he send?
This is the man who referred to an American judge as “Mexican” and said his ethnicity should disqualify him from presiding over a case, the man who tweeted anti-Semitic messages from white nationalist accounts, the man who built his political brand on questioning the place of birth and religion of America’s first black president. This man, with his long record of antagonism towards minorities and immigrants, is among the last people you would want to greet diverse travelers at America’s ports of entry.
The very demeanor of the man is disagreeable. He talks like a child. Everything is either “tremendous” or “a disaster.” He can’t go one minute without congratulating himself. There’s nothing welcoming looking at him. His forced smile is that of a used car salesman who just sold you a lemon. Most of the time, though, when he’s not aware of the cameras, he’s skulking around with a scowl like he just read a tweet about his crowd size.
It didn’t take long to find out. Less than two weeks into his presidency, permanent American residents are being detained at airports. Five-year-olds are being handcuffed and removed from their parents. Interpreters who worked with the American forces on our self-proclaimed goal to stabilize Iraq are being told they can’t come to America, and Syrian refugees of any religion are being kept out even if they’ve already been vetted and acquired the proper papers, some even forcibly deported.
There’s more to come that will affect students, tourists, and immigrants from all around the world. One draft order would deport legal immigrants who legally use welfare programs. Another would clamp down on foreign workers. Buried in the text of the immigration ban that Trump already signed are provisions calling for the government to create a database of travel documents and require pointless interviews for any temporary visa holders who wants to extend their visa. Multiple executive orders call for the government to release reports on alleged crimes committed by immigrants and foreigners, reminiscent of Breitbart’s coverage of crimes committed by refugees and minorities under the leadership of Steve Bannon.
It’s not just that Trump doesn’t care about the value immigrants bring to America. It’s not that he simply wants there to be a semblance of order governing immigration. He could have made the already difficult immigration process harder without blocking people who already went through the process. The blanket bans, the wide-ranging scope that targets visa-holders and green card-holders, those measures serve no conceivable purpose other than spite.
As an international traveler who is fortunate enough to have been born in the most powerful country in the world, and thus have access to more than 160 countries visa-free, I feel sorry for the people who went through a process for over a year, paid large sums of money, and are blocked from entering the “shining city on the hill” at their last steps just because of where they were born. I feel embarrassed, having explained many times to people of the world, how America is a country of immigrants, how anyone can be an American, part of a wondrous culture created through exchange. Was I wrong? Were the naive Chinese citizens who told me I “didn’t look American” because my eyes were the wrong color right after all?
I have friends from China who wished to be American, who loved America so much they called themselves “American” when we met. I have friends who wanted the American values of freedom and democracy for their country, who wait to know whether America will protect them, even as Americans themselves take their system of government and rule of law for granted.
Is America still all its patriots and poets say she is? Will America welcome you, “no matter where you come from”? Has it ever been “exceptional”? There have been times before when those words didn’t ring true either. Today’s self-proclaimed “patriots,” who spout on about “America First” in front of a flag while defending their unconstitutional executive order, certainly lose their right to invoke any of the self-glorifying mythology.
But as long as once-strangers fleeing persecution are met with well-wishers and lawyers who will file a habeas appeal on their behalf, America will retain some of the friendliest people in the world.