Politics & Policy

Donald Trump’s Assault on American Immigrants

(Jim Bourg/Reuters)
It cuts to the heart of American exceptionalism.

As a proudly American son of immigrants, I have been observing Donald Trump’s escalating rhetoric towards immigrants with a profound sense of dismay. But while many of Trump’s statements around the issue of immigration have been egregious, I have found his latest comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel to be the most troubling, because they represent a dangerous assault on the very essence of what it means to be American.

My father was born in a town in northern Afghanistan, but won scholarships to study at the American University of Beirut and later at the University of Chicago. He became a U.S. citizen and then a U.S. government official — ultimately serving as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations in the Bush administration.

My mother’s father was the first member of his family born on U.S. soil. His older siblings were all born in Nicaragua, where the family originates. He joined the Army in World War II and wound up as part of the U.S. occupying force in Vienna, Austria, where he met my Austrian grandmother. The two of them moved to New Orleans after the war, which is where my mother was born.

Our family travels took us all over Europe and the Middle East. I did part of elementary school and most of middle school in Austria. Today I live in Singapore and my work still regularly takes me all around the world, including to many parts of Asia and Africa.

Friends of mine with a similar upbringing often feel like global citizens with a sense of national detachment — meaning they feel that they belong both everywhere and nowhere at once. But I have never felt like a global citizen. I have always felt American — full stop.

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American exceptionalism, to me, embodies many things. But one of its pillars is the idea that in the United States, more so than anywhere else in the world, any person can become a full member of his adopted country. It does not matter where you are from, what you look like, or what God you worship. If you embrace certain values and undertake certain required steps, you are an American. You join the club as a full-fledged member with no restrictions, barriers, or distinctions.

This is not just a legal reality. It is a cultural reality as well. Americans are welcoming of people who look and sound different. To be sure, when we detect an accent we may be curious where you came from originally; but it is a benign and friendly curiosity, an item of polite conversation which results in no sense of other-ness. Where are you from originally, if I may ask? Oh, Afghanistan; thats fascinating. And then that is usually the end of it. The conversation moves on to other, more pertinent topics.

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Growing up I saw this, a thousand times, with my own eyes. I saw it, of course, in our major cities — New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, diverse cities teeming with people of all backgrounds, where the American melting pot is on full, constant, beautiful display. But I saw it also in our rural areas: spending time in the Carolinas and Georgia on our way to see an uncle in Florida; visiting family in Louisiana or friends in Nebraska; or taking business trips to Texas, Oklahoma, and Michigan. Americans — even those with less exposure to immigrants from unfamiliar parts of the world — were in my experience universally welcoming, well-intentioned, kind, and hospitable. And perhaps most important, I saw it through the lives and careers of my parents, who never faced any barriers in the United States, and for whom no opportunities ever felt out of reach — including the highest security clearances and the most sensitive national-security assignments.

There is no other country in the world where immigrants, and the families of immigrants, are so fully embraced, both legally and culturally. It is why the United States will always have a demographic advantage over every other country in the world: China may have a population of over 1 billion, but the United States can draw from a talent pool of 6 billion — because anybody in the world can become, and would indeed be happy to become, an American citizen. And it is why, for me, America is the only place I can and will ever call home.

#share#Donald Trump’s attack on Judge Curiel represents a departure from that America. Curiel is the presiding judge in the Trump University fraud lawsuit. At rallies over the past week, Trump has been telling his followers that Curiel should be forced to recuse himself from the case because he “happens to be, we believe, Mexican.” (Curiel is, in fact, an American-born U.S. citizen whose parents are originally from Mexico.) Trump’s argument is that Curiel cannot judge the lawsuit impartially because of his Mexican heritage. In subsequent interviews, Trump refused to back down from his position and further clarified that he would have the same reservations about a Muslim judge.

In so arguing, Trump is no longer narrowly directing his ire at non-Americans such as illegal Mexican immigrants or foreign Muslims who wish to emigrate here. To be sure, his language in those contexts has also been outrageous and incendiary, as when he said of illegal immigrants from Mexico: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

With his attack on Curiel, Trump is now targeting a full-fledged U.S. citizen who happens to be of immigrant descent.

But with his attack on Curiel, he is now targeting a full-fledged U.S. citizen who happens to be of immigrant descent — one who, as a judge, has sworn an oath to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution. Trump is thereby striking a blow at the very heart of what it means to be American. He is stating, in essence, that this judge who is a U.S. citizen actually is not an American like any other, because of his heritage. That line of thinking demolishes a whole pillar of what makes America exceptional.

If Judge Curiel can be accused of holding a hidden bias due to his Mexican heritage, what does that mean for other immigrants or children of immigrants who wish to hold positions of national trust? What does it mean for some of our most important national-security practitioners like Kissinger, Brzezinski, or even my father?

#related#And together with Trump’s other intemperate language towards immigrants, what message does all of this send to people around the world who look admiringly at the United States as that shining city on a hill where you are what you make of yourself, not what somebody else labels you because of the color of your skin or your ethnic or religious background?

Donald Trump’s views are divorced from the America that I know, and I refuse to believe that he reflects the views of our people; America’s culture towards immigration is and remains exceptional. But Donald Trump’s rhetoric is having a corrosive effect both domestically and for the U.S. reputation overseas. It must be forcefully repudiated by the entire political spectrum.


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