After listening to the stories I’ve heard over the past few weeks (and over the past 25 years) in the waiting area of the Lyndhurst Office of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, I will never be anything but eternally humbled by my birthright.
Presidents and cabinets change, the spirit of this nation, this “shining city on a hill,” does not. And if you think it does, and you are callous and sarcastic enough to spew that hostile rhetoric in the comments section, you have no true idea of what this country represents.
For the teacher from Pakistan whose school was firebombed because he had the audacity to defy the Taliban and allow girls to study alongside of boys, America represents the hope that he will be able to raise his own boys and girls in freedom. Living here means he won’t have to choose between his daughters and his sons, and he will be able to bequeath all of his children the great gift of learning.
For the young men from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, it means being able to avoid the gangs like MS-13 and Mara Salvatrucha. America represents a safe haven where Jose can practice his evangelical faith in peace and security, where Edgar can move beyond the pain of having watched his father murdered before his very eyes, where Jesus can go to school and not be stopped by drug traffickers who want to use him as a drug mule.
For the journalist from Belarus, it means that he will be able to write his words and his truth without having to worry that someone is waiting outside of his door, ready to silence him either temporarily or permanently.
For the women’s advocate from Nigeria, it means being able to wear pants in the street and not be stripped naked and called a whore. It means being able to continue her work protecting young women from being sex trafficked, even though she may have to do it in Florida now that we know where Robert Kraft and friends have been spending their time.
While I am at it, I need to say something about President Trump’s inability to find a graceful way to speak about tyrants.
When Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi Arabians at the all-but-confirmed behest of Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, President Trump pushed back against the vast majority of people who knew his son-in-law’s friend had blood on his hands. I remember his unwillingness to acknowledge that the prince could have played a role in the horrific butchery that took place at the embassy in Turkey.
Before that, the president took the word of Vladimir Putin that he hadn’t interfered in our elections, saying something along the lines of “he was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.” Putin might not have meddled in our elections (insert eyeroll here) but he has meddled with the health of many dissidents in his own country, most especially journalists. At least four deaths have been directly attributed to him or to his associates. Each time Trump seems to give him a respectful hearing, I think back to an asylum client I had, a Jewish woman from the former Soviet Union, and I want to vomit. Putin was in charge of the KGB when she was forced to flee.
And last week, the president seemed to accept the Kim Jong Un’s excuse that he didn’t know anything about the torture of Otto Warmbier, the young American who was held hostage in North Korea and came home as a vegetable. This was the cruelest of all, an innocent American essentially killed by tyrants, and the president seemed to be deliberately ignoring the truth, for diplomatic reasons. Trump tried to walk back his comments Friday after a strong backlash, including from Warmbier’s parents.
Barack Obama did the same thing with Iran, and the Bushes did the same thing with Saudi Arabia. Bill Clinton ignored the genocide in Rwanda, Ronald Reagan aided the Contras, Lyndon Johnson allowed My Lai to happen, and on and on and on. Even FDR turned his eyes away from the Holocaust.
So it’s not solely about Trump, or about any party or president. It’s about those who do damage to the overarching spirit of this majestic nation, including her own citizens who have lost any sense of grace, fairness or appropriate respect for what America represents.
Spending time at the asylum office will make you realize that while Americans can be pretty mediocre, “America” is still the that hazy outline of salvation in New York’s harbor for those who can only hope to belong.