Trump Immigration Ban: Former U.S. Ambassador's Open Letter to Nikki Haley

Governor Nikki Haley
The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley at U.N. headquarters in New York City, U.S. on January 27, 2017. The former U.S. ambassador to Sweden, Azita Raji, has urged Haley to remember that she too is an immigrant. Stephanie Keith/Reuters

Dear Ambassador Haley,

At the risk of breaching protocol, I would like to address you with the greatest respect, as one ambassador to another. There is too much at stake in this moment to stand on ceremony. As I write this, the news is full of stories of desperate people —families fleeing war and poverty, honor students awarded prestigious scholarships at U.S. institutions, translators who risked detention and death in Iraq to work with our troops— being detained or turned back to face the conditions that made them leave their homes for the promise this country has long held for all people.

Particularly you and me.

I am an immigrant and the daughter of immigrants; I came with my family to this country from Iran at age 17. You are the daughter of Punjabi Sikhs who came here with the same shared aspirations as those people who officials held over the weekend at the point of entry to the U.S.— at least until a court-ordered stay suspended the ban.

Through my diplomatic lens, I can see how this travel ban may complicate your job, perhaps arousing a new hostility to an America that seems intent on shunning rather than engaging with sweeping swaths of the world.

However, from that same vantage point, I can see it as an opportunity to distinguish fundamental American values from an aberrant political decision, and to assert those enduring values in ways that allow us, as citizens and ambassadors, to continue to claim we represent the land of opportunity, the land of the free.

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You were appointed by a Republican president utterly unlike the Democratic president who appointed me. Yet as U.S. ambassadors, we represent our country, not the policies of a particular party or president. This ought to come as naturally to you as it has to me, since so much of your story and mine, is distinctly American. Where else could a girl born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa reinvent herself as Nikki Haley, adopt a new religion, and become the governor of South Carolina, a state that was among the first to sign on to a "republic conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal"?

For the sake of the interests we share as proud representatives of our country, I would like to suggest how you might clear whatever diplomatic hurdles this travel ban may have put in your path.

First, consider what you've said already. You've announced that you expect other countries to have our back. But please consider further whether this is realistic when we're showing contempt for so many of them. You added that you'll be taking the names of those who refuse to support us, and to this I say: By all means take names. But do it in the way you would socially, to open conversations that may help you understand their enmity and distrust well enough to, if not dispel them, then to foster opportunities to do so down the line.

Second, please don't underestimate the desire for peace among the very people we risk antagonizing by forsaking the language of diplomacy in favor of intimidating speech. Listen, for example, to the Israeli and the Palestinian people, not just their politicians. Recent polls tell us that the majority of Israelis favor a two-state solution, despite what their leader says. This kind of information, straight from the people, rather than the political biases of the day, should inform your diplomacy around all areas of conflict throughout the world.

Third, please keep in mind the critical role that free trade played in your success story. Your mother ran a lucrative import business, which relied on the cooperation of other countries. She was able to provide you and your siblings not only with all the comforts of an American middle-class home, but with work opportunities that eventually made you a credible candidate for executive office. Her business thrived thanks to the kind of reciprocal trade agreements that the administration that appointed you would now like to annul.

As an ambassador for American values, you need not be an apologist for the current trade policies. You need only assert America's ongoing desire for international security, prosperity, stability, and peace through all vehicles meant to attain them including trade agreements, strategic alliances and initiatives to address climate change.

Finally, as a representative of our country, I have found it helpful to bear in mind at all times Walt Whitman's humbling, iconic line: "I am large. I contain multitudes."

In less poetic words, America is not this or that. It isn't what it seems in any particular moment. The country that elected Barack Obama is the country that elected Donald Trump. The country that elected the son of an immigrant chose as that president's successor a man intent on keeping immigrants out.

Ambassador Haley, as American emissaries, it's on us to sort through the complications and contradictions, to present to the world the America that welcomed and nurtured the two of us. It's the America with the will and resources to welcome yet more people, the one that's able and willing to leverage its values—its fundamental, enduring values, to inspire innovation, foster peace, and remain a beacon of hope in a troubled world.

With respect,

Ambassador Azita Raji

Azita Raji is the former U.S. ambassador to Sweden.