The cost of the Trump administration’s abrupt changes in immigration policy, to individuals and families, to companies and communities, and to our nation’s standing as a place of tolerance and opportunity, are enormous. Far more sinister than travel bans and policy changes is the undeclared, and now seemingly common, practice of profiling on the basis of religion and origin.
We’ve heard many troubling stories over the past month. Now I have my own.
I am a Jordanian-born American citizen who attended college and graduate school in the United States, and for almost three decades I have been an academician and senior administrator at Columbia University. My current position, overseeing a network of eight global centers on five continents, requires frequent international travel, usually causing me to leave and re-enter the United States on a monthly basis.
On February 18, upon my return from a trip to India and Columbia’s center in Mumbai, I was detained and questioned by a border control officer at JFK airport who wanted to know whether I currently live in the U.S. or in my country of birth. There were more questions about the nature of my relationship with Jordan and the purpose of Columbia’s Global Centers. Though never made explicit, the unmistakable subtext of the interrogation was to vet on the basis of Muslim and Arab affiliation.
This was the first time I ventured abroad since Donald Trump became president and the first time in all of my extensive traveling from America that I have been detained and questioned upon my return.
There are layers of irrationality and irony here. When I arrived home, there was a reminder of the most basic duty of my American citizenship waiting in my mailbox: a summons for jury duty. And long ago, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Program for Global Entry designated me a low-risk traveler.
“This was the first time I ventured abroad since Donald Trump became president and the first time in all of my extensive traveling from America that I have been detained and questioned upon my return.”
Initial feelings of vulnerability and insult quickly turned to thoughts of what this experience can teach about the new direction President Trump is seeking to take the country. We scarcely need reminders of the departure from American values represented by the president’s policies regarding immigrants and refugees. American exceptionalism and the country’s appeal to immigrants are rooted in the nation’s openness, inclusiveness and generosity. This has been a country that not only tolerates but celebrates the differences among individuals. My experience at the airport was not required to explain that ways of life long relied upon are being overturned.
It did, however, sharpen my understanding of the purpose of the disturbing project engineered by Mr. Trump that is now upon us. At one level, it is to destroy the tolerance that makes America unique and, yes, great. The changes underway aim to accentuate differences in race, culture, religion, sexual orientation and national origin, not for the purpose of celebrating them, but to enshrine a negative perception of “otherness” and, most ominously, an environment of bigotry. In this view of the world expressed unambiguously by the president and some members of his cabinet, the Muslim and Arab are the most dangerous “other.”
The real-world implementation of the new approach to immigrants is both less and more than advertised. At last year’s Republican convention and again during his address to a joint session of Congress, Mr. Trump called attention to the victims of crimes perpetrated by immigrants, offering their stories as the rationale for calls to build literal and figurative walls against the world beyond our borders—making a visceral case where no rational one exists.
“We scarcely need reminders of the departure from American values represented by the president’s policies regarding immigrants and refugees.”
What does the spectacle of publicly displaying those personal examples of sorrow and loss have to do with the attempted deportation this past week of a French historian and former visiting professor at Columbia, Henry Rousso, after he arrived in Houston to deliver a keynote address at Texas A&M University? (Professor Rousso was born in Egypt.) What should we make of the religious profiling of Muhammad Ali Jr., who was asked at a Florida airport if he was a Muslim? If not to shield us from violence, then what are these policies really about?
I think we know. In addition to the very real damage done to countless people’s lives and to American institutions that thrive as magnets for talent from around the world, there is also a not-so-subtle agenda at work here to make difference and otherness a badge of shame and to communicate to the public that there is a preferred type of American. These incursions into the lives of ordinary citizens affect us all and, if not rejected, will come to define our country.
I am privileged to work at a great research university and to be immersed in an academic mission of global engagement that serves as an antidote to Mr. Trump’s policies built on xenophobia and hyper-nationalism. Laws and attitudes that prevent the U.S. from remaining a welcoming place for scholars and students from around the world will destroy our nation’s global leadership position in higher education and, I fear, much more. My recent experience and the experience of many others serve as warnings of the danger that lies ahead. These warnings should be heeded.
Professor Safwan M. Masri is Columbia University’s Executive Vice President for Global Centers and Global Development, and the author of Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly, which will be published by Columbia University Press in the fall.