We are all immigrants. That is the essential truth of America, a core value—perhaps the core value. Throughout American history we have made that idea work, albeit not without the occasional indigestion.
Despite the usual hiccups and challenges of generational assimilation of new immigrants, Americans can proudly point to an unbroken 200+ year tradition of tolerance of newcomers. We welcome them, as the plaque on the Statue of Liberty proclaims:
Open borders and the freedom to travel give those words meaning. What President Trump did last week (see here) damages that universal creed that distinguishes Americans and makes us unique.
Outside our borders, America enjoys a reputation for tolerance, though it’s hard for other cultures to quite understand who we are. America’s openness and tolerance are admired, but often viewed as an enigma. When I travel overseas, I am constantly asked: What is America?
I always give the same answer: America is not one culture. America is an idea, and the ideal has many intertwined parts. It is a universal respect for individual initiative; it is the freedom to express one’s thoughts; and it is the right to live one’s life and to pursue one’s goals, sheltered by law without prejudice and unimpeded by race, color, creed, or cultural background.
It doesn’t matter, I have said to the world, where you are from. It only matters, if you come here, that you adopt the idea that you can be anything if you work hard, treat others fairly, obey the law, and adopt our tolerance and sensitivity to other people. We used to call America a melting pot, I have said. It is no less so now than ever it was.
Nor does it matter when you come. My family has been here for nearly 400 years—since Jamestown. That longevity, however, doesn’t make me more of an American than the 1500 people from over 100 different countries who took the oath to become American citizens in Minnesota in September, 2012 (see here).
We are all immigrants, no matter when we came. Come be an American, I have always said. We welcome you, and our gates are always open.
Seeking to understand one another goes both ways. Of the 197 countries on the planet I am ashamed to say that I have only been to 61 or so—not even a third. Nonetheless, visiting sixty-odd countries is enough for me to affirm that travel is enriching and broadening. Being there in person, up close, to breath in other cultures and ways of life, is humbling. Travel cannot help but foster tolerance for others’ beliefs, customs and cuisines, while at the same time witnessing firsthand common human values that bind us all together, no matter how different we may appear superficially to one another.
Observing those common traits of goodness and kindness in people everywhere has convinced me that any person from any country can become an American. Travel exposure to other cultures has also made me a better American, a better citizen of the world, and a better person.
However, what President Trump began last week with the Muslim ban threatens both our opportunities to travel freely and the opportunities for those yearning to become Americans to reach our shores and to fulfill their dreams.
How long before the unintended consequences of the travel ban set in? I embark next week on a trip to Tanzania flying Qatar Airways via Doha, Qatar, an Islamic airline of an Islamic nation. When will Qatar and the other Islamic countries of the Arabian Peninsula, including the United Arab Emirates, home to Emirates Airways, retaliate against the Muslim travel ban by curtailing service to the USA?
My past stops in Doha on Qatar, in Dubai on Emirates, in Cairo on Egypt Air, in Indonesia and Malaysia on Malaysian Air, and in Istanbul on Turkish Airlines have expanded my understanding of their cultures, stretching my acceptance of Islamic life and customs. The feeling was reciprocated among nationals I met in those countries.
Understanding engenders trust, and trust engenders collaboration and peace. Without the freedom to travel, how can the people of other nations understand and learn to trust us? How can we understand and trust them?
Now I wonder: Are our gates closing, with travel barred for a thesis unsupported by facts? If America is no longer to be open, welcoming and tolerant, then the American Dream is in jeopardy, along with opportunities for Americans to gain understanding and compassion for other peoples and cultures through travel. That would be a terrible setback for America and for peace in the world.
Here is a sampling of the Muslim travel ban coverage and commentary from around the globe and from close at home:
New York Times
“[The decision to institute the travel ban has picked] needless fights around the world, damaged the country’s image, and taken a series of actions that undercut not just American values but American interests too.”
Randy Woodson, NCSU Chancellor, Raleigh, NC
“[NCSU is] strengthened by the talent, insight and culture that international students, faculty and staff bring to our campuses.”
Drew Faust, Harvard University President (see here)
“In times of unsettling change, we look toward our deepest values and ideals. Among them is the recognition that drawing people together from across the nation and around the world is a paramount source of our University’s strength. Thousands of students and scholars and visitors come to Harvard each year from all over the globe—to study, to teach, to propel our research enterprise, to join in conferences and colloquia, to share insights and abilities that transcend nationality. Thousands more leave Harvard each year to travel abroad, learning from experiences they could not replicate here, gaining insight into cultures and perspectives different from their own, visiting colleagues and family and friends, forming and sustaining the human bonds essential to mutual understanding. …
“Ours is a nation founded and built on the bedrock of religious pluralism and religious freedom. Our University embraces that commitment, in the spirit not of mere tolerance but of genuine inclusion. We must not and will not conflate people of a venerable faith with people predisposed to acts of terrorism and violence. …
“In these times of change, I hope and trust that all of us committed to the strength of American higher education can pursue these efforts together. Let us do so—to borrow the words of the poet Seamus Heaney, one of Harvard’s most beloved visitors from other shores—with our gates unbarred.”
The Economist (see here)
“In the past 40 years there has been not a single fatal terrorist attack in America carried out by anyone belonging to the seven nationalities targeted by the order. Excluding the 9/11 attacks, whose Egyptian, Emirati, Lebanese and Saudi Arabian executioners would not have been covered by Mr Trump’s ban, America has suffered hardly any terrorism perpetrated by immigrants. According to a study by Alex Nowrasteh for the [right-wing conservative] Cato Institute, the risk of an American being killed in a terrorist attack by a refugee in a given year is one in 3.6bn.
“That reflects the fact that America’s security screening of refugees, which can take over two years to complete, is thorough. It also reflects the fact that, given the opportunity of moving to America, almost every refugee would rather work hard and get on than blow people up. According to David Miliband, the head of the International Rescue Committee, which works with refugees, in the past decade refugees have started at least 38 new businesses merely in and around Cleveland, Ohio, creating 175 jobs and a $12m boost to the local economy.
“Americans are vastly more likely to find employment with a Muslim refugee than to be killed by one. They are in fact much likelier to be killed by cows, fireworks and malfunctioning elevators than an immigrant terrorist. As a means of keeping Americans safe, Mr Trump’s order is almost worthless.
“The reputational damage done to America by Mr Trump’s action will be dangerous, as well as large. The attributes that make America attractive to migrants—its openness, fairness and opportunity—are also among its most effective security mechanisms. They help explain why America is at once the most desirable destination for migrants and less prone to jihadist violence than almost any other country with a large Muslim population. By singling out Muslims for discrimination—including a group currently detained at John F. Kennedy airport in New York who had risked their lives working with Americans in Iraq—Mr Trump’s order is a repudiation of these American strengths.”
TechCrunch (see here)
Google: “We’re concerned about the impact of this [Muslim travel ban] order and any proposals that could impose restrictions on Googlers and their families, or that create barriers to bringing great talent to the U.S.”
On January 31, Google staged a company-wide protest.
WRAL TV-5, Raleigh, NC (see here)
“The Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority issued a permit last Sunday for the planned protest, establishing a designated area for the event. The permit was for 150 people, but more than 1,000 came to protest. The crowd got so heavy at one point that the airport had to close the upper level of Terminal 2.”
Madeleine Albright, Former Secretary of State
“This is a cruel measure that represents a stark departure from America’s core values. We have a proud tradition of sheltering those fleeing violence and persecution, and have always been the world leader in refugee resettlement. As a refugee myself who fled the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, I personally benefited from this country’s generosity and its tradition of openness. This order would end that tradition, and discriminate against those fleeing a brutal civil war in Syria.
“There is no data to support the idea that refugees pose a threat. This policy is based on fear, not facts. The refugee vetting process is robust and thorough. It already consists of over 20 steps, ensuring that refugees are vetted more intensively than any other category of traveler.”
“Trump said the new measure was intended ‘to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America.’
“‘We don’t want them here,’ Trump said.
“The executive order also suspends visa entry into the U.S. from seven countries that have predominately Muslim populations: Syria, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen.”