From Citizen To Immigrant

I have a very personal bone to pick with the Republican nominee for president.  His verbal outrages, wild-eyed assaults on traditional standards of decency in speech and behavior, and unconstitutional suggestions for keeping certain foreigners away from our shores are having a distinctly negative effect upon my wife. They are helping to make her, a longtime American citizen, feel like an immigrant again.

She was born in Afghanistan and came here in the 1970s to study nursing at the University of Nebraska. When the Russians invaded her homeland and installed a new regime, her passport was canceled and she became a stateless person.  An American court granted her political asylum and a few years later, after working for decades as a nurse at some of the best hospitals in the country, including UCLA and St. John’s in Santa Monica, she was delighted to become a U.S. citizen.         

My wife loves this country with the fervor that only someone who has escaped from a war-torn and repressive culture can love a land of freedom and opportunity ― a place where you can feel safe, vote for your leaders, express your opinions without fear of being jailed, and follow your dreams. She has not lost a taste for her native culture, its foods, music, and hospitality, but her sense of belonging, her true home, is the United States. When someone is moved by her appearance or slight accent to ask “Where are you from?” she answers, “I’m an American,” and refuses to deal with any subsequent questions about where she was born.

The reasons why a woman who for more than 30 years has helped to care for, comfort, and heal our fellow countrymen but now has begun to feel like an unwanted immigrant do not derive from Donald Trump alone. His words and antics are just the final straw in a fifteen-year process that has led up to the ugly notion by some that “You don’t belong here.”       

Since 9/11 the American attitude towards Islam, Muslims, and Central Asians has been paradoxical, to say the least. In some circles there has been an enormous interest in learning about a civilization that previously was almost completely off our culture’s radar screen. As part of this informal educational process, in the early 2000s my wife responded to requests from some churches, schools, NGOs, and civic groups that she deliver talks on her cultural, religious, and national background. Yet as the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan have dragged on, as the region has collapsed into chaos and ISIS, as acts of terror have multiplied and refugees have poured across borders, minds have hardened in some quarters against the beliefs and peoples of the Islamic world.

For my wife, negative experiences began on 9/11. On a hike in the Santa Monica mountains to clear her sorrow over the deaths and destruction of the Twin Towers by communing with nature, she let her guard down when a fellow hiker asked where she was from, with the result that the word, Afghanistan, made him back away and flee up the trail. The next day in the hospital some patients wondered aloud if she was a terrorist. Countless times in the following months and years she has been asked what it feels like to wear a burka by people who express disappointment when she explains that growing up she never wore one, that in ‘60s Kabul she wore jeans and miniskirts like many other young, modern Afghan women.

Never has she personally suffered any acts of overt hostility or violence because of her background. But repeated small remarks and incidents, either personal or experienced through the media, like small stones have added to a psychological pile that has increasingly weighed on her over the last fifteen years. The recurring quotations and misquotations from the Koran about the propensity of the religion towards violence; the jokes about the number of virgins in heaven for those who become martyrs for their faith; the bombings of mosques; the racist incidents in which not just Muslims but other innocent folk such as Sikhs have been terrorized; the denunciations of Islam as evil from various clerics; the repeated fusses over the hijab (which she has never worn) – all this has created the context for Trump’s demand that we bar Muslims from entering the country.  Both she and I worry that if this man is elected, could we see a Muslim version of the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s?

Like other Americans and Europeans, my wife has shared the great sorrow following the mass murders committed by terrorists in the name of religion.  Like other members of the Islamic community, she has worried at the news of each atrocity, hoping it has not been committed by a Muslim. When those worries have proven valid, she has shared the grief of all Americans and offered prayers for the families of the victims. Watching on TV the millions of migrants on the move out of the Middle East and North Africa this past year, seeing the negative reception they have received in so many countries, and hearing the words of Trump and his ilk in the last few months, my wife has begun to imagine that she is no longer welcome in the Western world. Recently she has begun to feel like – even to define herself as – an immigrant once again. Strongly as she loves America, my wife fears that the country no longer tolerates her.      

Does it? Will we remain true to the words on the Statue of Liberty, penned by Emma Lazarus over 125 years ago, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”? Will we close the door to members of certain groups seeking freedom, and fill with terror their members already here, making them anxious that they will be treated as second-class citizens or perpetual immigrants?

Will we let the forces of fear destroy one of the noblest of our traditions? Or will the United States remain, in the words of Governor Jonathan Winthrop voiced just before the Puritans landed at Massachusetts Bay in 1630 in search of freedom to worship, a “city on a hill, a beacon of light for all mankind”? If the Trumps have their way, how many more of us will go from being Americans to, like my wife, feeling ourselves to be immigrants once again? 

(Robert A. Rosenstone, Professor Emeritus of History at the California Institute of Technology, was born in Canada and has been an American citizen for over half a century. His sixteenth book, a memoir entitled Adventures of a Postmodern Historian, will be published by Bloomsbury in September.  His website is rosenstone.com)

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