Trump Brings Shame to U.S. With Immigration Ban Based on Fear

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A stranded Syrian refugee boy walks through a show storm at a refugee camp north of Athens, Greece January 10. President Trump has temporarily halted the Syrian refugee program via executive order. Reuters

Donald Trump’s "extreme vetting" plan to keep out “radical Islamic terrorists,” is a policy based in fear, rather than facts. The ban suspends immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations for 90 days and suspends all entry of Syrian nationals indefinitely. This means the fixers that have saved my life in the Middle East for the past two decades won’t be allowed to live in the U.S., a country they dreamed of.

“We don’t want them here,” Trump said while signing the order. “ We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country, and love deeply our people.”

Dreams of the U.S.

I am ashamed of those words. Seven years ago last week, Yasser Kate, who worked for my office in Baghdad, was blown up by a car bomb. He was 40 years old, the father of two little girls, only 2 and 4 at the time, and a trained veterinarian. He had worked for me and a group of Western reporters tirelessly, despite threats to his own well-being, because he believed in loyalty, friendship and commitment.

Since then, some of us have been working to get his younger brother Haider, who took up Yasser’s job working with reporters, his immigration papers to bring his family to the U.S.  There is no doubt in my mind Haider would follow Trump’s orders. He’s proven himself as hardworking, devoted and decent. He’d support our country and “love deeply our people.”

It seemed to me only fair that if my grandfather, an Italian who wanted to escape fascism in the 1920s, was able to seek safe passage to the U.S., then so could Haider. My grandfather fled because he claimed his life was in danger. Haider feels the same. He wants to be safe. He wants to raise his kids in an environment where there aren’t car bombs and corpses, the result of an occupation started by the U.S. That dream just died. The full impact of his ban will depend on how federal agencies issue regulations pursuant to Trump's order. But it has had the desired effect of starting a national dialogue to keep “terrorists,” falsely associated with the named Muslim-majority countries, out of America.

Last December, I stood at the edge of an enormous swimming pool in Berlin watching Yusra Mardini, who swam for three hours to pull a sinking boat full of terrified refugees to shore in Greece in 2015, training for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

To watch this young refugee train—her fierce determination to succeed, her focus, her talent—was thrilling. In less than a year after fleeing war-torn Syria, Yusra was competing in the Rio Olympics as part of the first-ever refugee team. She gets up every day at 5 a.m. to swim, and then she studies. She’s mastered English and German in a year.  She also had dreams of possibly going to America. That won’t happen now.

Trump’s ban also is bad news for my friend Monzer from Damascus, a brilliant dental student at the University of Iowa. In his spare time, he mentors underprivileged kids as a "Big Brother," and has a straight-A average. He’s been in the U.S. since he was 16; his family got him out of Damascus after he was thrown in jail for protesting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.  He’s a Muslim, so he gets lumped in the same, increasingly widening category—from a Muslim-majority nation, therefore terrorist.  

Then I think about Abdi, a young Somali, who shielded me against al-Shabaab bullets during a shootout in Mogadishu in 2002 and slept outside my door to make sure I was not kidnapped. He, too, had a dream of studying in the U.S.

RTST65R A Syrian refugee girl poses for a picture inside al-Rawda refugee camp in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon November 24, 2016. Reuters

One day Abdi told me why: “Life is short, but in Somalia it’s much shorter.” A few years before, walking down the street one day with his brother, he looked down and saw his brother on the ground, dead. A stray bullet had missed Abdi but found his brother’s heart. Abdi did not want to die like that—he wanted to work hard and get an education in the U.S.  But he could not get papers. I tried for years, and the last time I saw him was in Juba, South Sudan. He was working a menial job, and he treated me to lunch to show that he had gone far. But I wept then, for what Abdi could have been, and how ashamed I was that we could not help him achieve a dream.  He still wanted to get to America then. He won’t ever get there now.

Most of all, Trump’s ban is shameful for the people who have served us. This ban means every single Syrian or Iraqi soldier that fought against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) with the U.S. coalition (most recently in Mosul) will not be allowed to come to the US. All of the interpreters who worked with U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, taking huge risks working for the “occupier,” will be excluded as well.

Alienation Narrative

The real danger of Trump’s extreme vetting plan is that it groups everyone into one category—“radical Islamic terrorist threats”—simply because of their Muslim faith. It means that every Syrian family I interviewed as a consultant for the UN’s Refugee Agency in 2014 will not be allowed to seek safe haven in the US. Yet Christians—who Trump erroneously says had a harder time getting admitted to the U.S. than Muslims—will be given priority. Trump’s compassion extends to Christians in Syria, but it is sharply cut off there.

Trump signed his order Friday, ironically International Holocaust Remembrance Day. He saw no irony in that. Neither did he see the malice. Madeline Albright, herself a refugee from Czechoslovakia, said in a statement on Facebook: “It 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.” Albright also points out that it is a security risk.  “We should be doing more, rather than less,” to aid the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, she notes.

Most worryingly, this is the first major legislative step in Trump’s alienation narrative, the beginning of the “us” versus “them.” Holocaust Remembrance Day also recalls the reason America should welcome refugees: In May, 1939, the U.S. turned away a ship, the St. Louis, carrying 900 German Jews fleeing the Nazis, and Congress rejected a proposal to allow 20,000 Jewish children to come to the U.S. to seek safety. We are making the same mistakes again.

He’s also pushed aside the concept of home-grown terrorists. In France, where I live, eight out of the 10 terrorists involved in recent attacks had French and Belgian nationality. They did not come from Trump’s list of seven.

It is a question of morality. To be a world leader, morals must come into question. We said “never again” after the Holocaust; we would help people fleeing persecution. With one signature, Trump has obliterated one of our country’s most virtuous tenets.