Why a ‘nation of immigrants’ must heed the past

The child of a Jewish emigre from Hitler's Austria, Julie L. Kessler writes that Donald Trump's executive order on refugees and immigration returns the United States to some dark chapters of history

February 2, 2017 2:52 PM (UTC+8)
A Syrian family is carried to safety from areas controlled by Islamic State jihadists near Raqqa in Syria on November 9, 2016. Photo: AFP/Delil Souleiman
A Syrian family is carried to safety from areas controlled by Islamic State jihadists near Raqqa in Syria on November 9, 2016. Photo: AFP/Delil Souleiman

I should never have been born. At least not in the US. But fate, destiny and a healthy dose of Vegas-style luck decided otherwise.

Just a few days before Kristallnacht in German-occupied Austria, my paternal grandparents and their three teenaged children, stateless refugees, arrived at New York’s Ellis Island. My grandmother’s third cousin, a lawyer she had never met, had won a highly coveted lottery visa for their entry. The rest of my grandparents’ families – their parents, six siblings, nieces, nephews and extended family – all perished at various concentration camps that implemented Hitler’s final solution.

Twenty-six years later I became the first person on either side of my family to be born on American soil. This may explain my abnormally possessive relationship with my US passport. I also became a lawyer.

It also partially explains my abject horror last weekend when, moments before boarding a flight from Cape Town, where I was on assignment, to Dubai – for another one – I learned of President Donald Trump’s most recent executive order blocking all refugees from entering the US for 120 days, while denying entry to citizens from SSSIILY – Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.

Naturally, because of Trump’s wide international web of business interests, past and current – the complete extent of which we’ll probably never know since he refuses either to divest or to release his tax returns – no state with which he does business, past or present, was on the SSSIILY list. Not Saudi Arabia, not UAE member Dubai, not India, not the Philippines.

Worldwide, the response has been swift. Iran quickly took retaliatory action and barred US citizens from entry. The Jeddah-based, 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which includes Indonesia and Malaysia, stated on Monday that it had “grave concerns,” and warned “Such selective and discriminatory acts will only serve to embolden the radical narratives of extremists and will provide further fuel to the advocates of violence and terrorism at a critical time.” This is advice we should heed.

Swedish Deputy Prime Minister Margot Wallstrom said “This decision only increases mistrust and tensions between people.” UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson said that it’s “Divisive and wrong to stigmatize because of nationality.” Numerous other foreign officials have chimed in with concern and disagreement.

Over the weekend, large protests erupted at several American airports; federal lawsuits were filed, overturning the ban in four states; and acting US Attorney General Sally Yates was summarily fired, after nearly three decades of public service, for advising US Attorneys not to enforce the order, which she determined went against the rule of law.

Major universities around the US have voiced support for their many visiting scholars and physicians from SSSIILY countries in American residency training programs, as well as international students, many of whom were in transit back to the US from visiting family overseas for the holidays when this order was issued. Those remaining in the US were advised not to leave the country, as, given the uncertainly of the order’s enforcement, their re-entry could not be guaranteed.

America is, first and foremost, a nation of immigrants – people like my parents and millions of others who, along with their progeny, became a fundamental part of the American story

Several business leaders have spoken out as well, including Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who indicated the coffee chain will hire 10,000 refugees worldwide over the next five years. Airbnb said it would provide complimentary accommodation “to refugees and anyone not allowed in the US.”

The most vocal business leaders, however, have been from the tech industry, which stands to be most affected by the ban since many engineers and innovators are East Asian or South Asian, and many rely on H1-B visas. Indeed, many tech giants and their families were once refugees, including Google founder Sergey Brin. The late Steve Jobs’ father came from Syria. Simmering Trump-motivated concern in the tech world at once became an industry-wide tornado of fear at the prospect of harakiri of its central mantra: globalization.

In less than two weeks since Trump took the oath of office, swearing on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible to uphold the US Constitution, it seems that instead of doing so he’s ignited a match – if not to the letter of that document, then certainly to the spirit of it. The result is a roller coaster of epic proportions, an Orwellian horror show where “alternative facts” are created by the current administration to rebut journalistic efforts to uncover the truth and report it.

Fear is a powerful tool and one that Trump has used extensively to serve his needs, both during the campaign and now with the SSSIILY ban. It is also an old tool. President John Adams’ late 18th century sedition laws were similar in nature. Three of those four laws were ultimately repealed, for good reason, and the remaining one revised.

U.S. property mogul Donald Trump poses next to bagpipers during a media event on the sand dunes of the Menie estate, the site for Trump's proposed golf resort, near Aberdeen, north east Scotland May 27, 2010. REUTERS/David Moir (BRITAIN POLITICS - Tags: SPORT GOLF BUSINESS) - RTR2EF9J
Donald Trump is descended from Scottish and German immigrants. Photo: Reuters

On May 13, 1939, a German transatlantic ship, the St. Louis, departed Hamburg in Germany for Havana, Cuba with 937 refugees aboard – nearly all Jews, fleeing the Nazis. Most had applied for US visas and held Cuban landing certificates and transit visas. On arrival in Cuba, officials in Havana refused to admit them, and denied the passengers disembarkation. (There were already 2,500 Jewish refugees in Cuba, and their presence had sparked xenophobia, anti-Semitism and resentment among a local population struggling with a fragile economy.) The St. Louis then headed toward Miami, where some frantic passengers sent cables to President Franklin D. Roosevelt requesting refuge. Roosevelt didn’t respond, and neither the State Department nor the White House took measures to allow the refugees to come ashore to American soil. With nowhere to disembark, on June 6, 1939, the ship and its passengers returned to Europe, where many perished at the hands of what they had been attempting to flee.

Shortly thereafter came the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII – another hideous legacy of Adams’ sedition laws. This was followed by Senator Joe McCarthy’s communist witch-hunts of the 1950s. These events divided America deeply and scarred it painfully. They also made America far less great. George Santayana’s assertion that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” has perhaps never been more appropriate.

America is, first and foremost, a nation of immigrants – people like my parents and millions of others who, along with their progeny, became a fundamental part of the American story. Trump’s ancestors were not Indigenous Native Americans, but Scottish and German immigrants. Trump might consider that the next time he ponders what has truly made America great. Similarly, as he relentlessly tweets on his smartphone, he might think of Steve Jobs’ Syrian immigrant father.

Julie L. Kessler is an attorney based in Los Angeles, a freelance writer for several publications, and the author of the award-winning book Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight. Visit her website here

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