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This Is Who We Are

We have to be honest with ourselves if we want to change our country

President Trump's sloppily written and hastily implemented executive order on immigration is not explicitly a Muslim ban. It doesn't name a specific religion at all. But one doesn't exactly have to be Harriet the Spy to trace the law's intentions. During the campaign, Trump explicitly called for a ban on all Muslims from overseas, an idea that was roundly denounced all across the political spectrum. But not only did he never formally withdraw or apologize for his proposed Muslim ban (which is still on his website), when he debuted a version of his current policy, he insisted that it was materially the same. Unofficial advisor Rudy Giuliani said that Trump asked him to commission a group to formulate the Muslim ban in a way that would be legal. The text of the executive order, read plainly, asks for a ban on all refugees from seven countries, then allows a broad latitude for exceptions for those fleeing religious persecution — provided that they are a religious minority in their country. Since all seven of the countries are majority-Muslim, this means that Muslims would not be eligible for the exception.

If one wanted to stop Muslim refugees from coming into this country while retaining plausible deniability, this is the easiest way to do it. Black Americans are familiar with the way ostensibly colorblind rules can be used as tools of discrimination

But you don't have to call Trump's executive order a Muslim ban to see it as capricious and counterproductive — a move to secure his base, not the country's borders. The net Trump cast has not only caught refugees, but also permanent residents who have long thought of themselves as Americans, as well as people who fled oppression years and decades ago and got citizenship in other countries. Trump separated children from their parents and cleaved people from the lives they have spent years building.

The tenor of much of the public reaction to the ban was mournful, angry shock. Immigrants and the children of immigrants shared the arc of their lives: fleeing war, tyranny, and persecution for America, finding acceptance on our shores, building full and productive lives here. How could the United States betray its most fundamental ideals this way? "This is not who we are" was a popular refrain. "This is not the America I know."

Some defenders of the executive order have sought to portray it as being in step with past American policy. Trump himself claimed that this was no different from a policy Obama pursued in 2011. While this specific claim may be an oversimplification (and self-contradictory to boot: Trump can't claim that Obama's actions were insufficient when his own are identical), the overall thrust is true. This is who we are. We rounded up our own citizens and put them in internment camps because their ancestors were born in Japan. We turned away a ship full of Jewish people fleeing Hitler, condemning them to die in concentration camps. In our zeal to deport undocumented Mexican immigrants, we illegally arrested and deported American citizens and stranded people in the desert without food. Donald Trump pointed to that particular mass deportation — callously called Operation Wetback — as a model for dealing with illegal immigration. The answer to the question "who can become an American?" has always been contingent upon the whims of white nativist prejudice and fear. America is Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, but we are also Jim Crow and the Trail of Tears.

The reason to recognize that this refugee ban is rooted in precedent is not to make ourselves comfortable — quite the opposite. To say that something is a normal state of affairs does not justify or sanction it. The point of recognizing this history is to honestly contend with the task at hand. It's one thing to correct an aberration; it's quite another to tear out the roots of an entire system.

“The answer to the question ‘who can become an American?’ has always been contingent upon the whims of white nativist prejudice and fear. America is Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, but we are also Jim Crow and the Trail of Tears.”

This particular crisis has antecedents far older than the election of Donald Trump. The existence of many of these refugees is itself an indictment of the foreign policy of the last two presidential administrations, and the horrors we've inflicted upon these populations go far beyond rejecting people at our border. The case of Yemen is particularly instructive: It's a country where the United States has aided and abetted Saudi Arabian war crimes, lending its military might to provide logistical, technical, and targeting assistance to Saudi Arabia as it repeatedly bombed hospitals and indiscriminately murdered Yemeni civilians. We have even sold them the actual bombs. We've stood by and watched as Saudi Arabia's blockade put an entire country on the brink of starvation. As bad as it is to ban Yemeni refugees from our country, it's nowhere near the top of the list of horrors that the Obama administration inflicted on that country's people.

The response to American complicity in these ongoing war crimes has not been widespread popular protest, but rather a chorus of silence. I raise this point not to demean people who are newly shocked into awareness and engagement — any cause that tries to shame those who wish to join its ranks is doomed to failure. I also don't wish to somehow deny the moral authority of the protests simply because they didn't happen sooner. I'm sure at least part of the reason for the earlier muted reaction is simple partisan hypocrisy: People tend to be less critical of the actions of their own party. And it's also true that people are generally more politically aware when the presidential administration changes. But I think there's something more subtle and insidious at work here, as well: Democrats simply believed that Obama was a good and wise person, and so his administration's actions must also be good and wise. One of the deepest problems with the modern Democratic Party is this idea that power can be trusted once it has been entrusted to good people. This is a seductive and powerful lie.

As a generation of liberals are quickly learning, their politicians cannot be trusted to do the right thing. They must be constantly coaxed and cajoled and checked. We must elect good and decent people, certainly, but then we must make sure that they act that way once they have power.

I realize that it must seem incredibly premature to start discussing what happens after Trump, but I believe that we will survive. I believe that we will win. That makes it crucial that we remember the lessons we're learning now. Forgetting means returning to complacency and risking losing the change we'll make. We can't let that happen. This is who we are, but it's not who we have to be.

This post has been modified since publication.