When they came through the arrivals gate at John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1968, my parents could have been seen as a threat.
It was the middle of the Cold War, and my parents — my mom was 21 and my dad was 23 — had spent their entire lives behind the Iron Curtain in a communist country. And 1968 was the bloodiest year yet for American troops in a war being fought to contain communism. Nearly 17,000 Americans died that year in Vietnam.
And here came Ludmila and Josef Dvorak through the airport gates in the middle of all of that, in the fanciest clothes they owned, two people with paperwork, Czechoslovakian passports, that linked them to communism.
They were not detained, they were not questioned. They were allowed into a country symbolized by the Statue of Liberty.
That was the America of 1968. It is not the America of today.
My parents watched the scenes unfolding across the country this weekend, as people like them — refugees with nothing more than suitcases and dreams — were treated so differently when they walked through those airport gates.
It was the second weekend of Donald Trump’s presidency, and, once again, he’d generated a wave of protests in Washington and around the country. This time, the outrage was aimed at his decision to sign an executive order temporarily banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries and refugees from around the world from entering the United States.
Trump’s Muslim ban, basically.
At the White House, up Massachusetts Avenue to the Islamic Center of Washington, outside the Trump International Hotel and at airport arrival gates across the region and the nation, thousands of people gathered to show support for refugees, green-card holders and even U.S. citizens who were suddenly being denied entry to the country.
My mom imagined what would have happened if, back then, President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed an executive order banning all citizens of communist countries from the United States.
A chunk of America would have bought that, for sure. Fear sells, and the country has a long, ugly history of hostility toward immigrants from many countries and many faiths.
Fifty years ago, no one was worried about Islamist militants; the Communists were our enemy. But reason, empathy and humanity won.
Because when my parents left everything in Czechoslovakia behind, when they got green cards, and when they raised their hands to pledge allegiance to the United States, the immigrants of my parents’ era were seen as dissidents — heroes, even.
Of course, it helped that my mother and father are white and from a Christian country. And it helped that our confrontations with communism didn’t take place on American soil. So they were celebrated for rejecting the enemy and embracing the United States.
America 2, Communism 0. U.S.A.!
This weekend, we became a country that detained a 5-year-old Bethesda boy at Dulles International Airport and kept him from his mother for hours to make sure he wasn’t a terrorist threat.
Artiman Jalali was born in the United States and has dual citizenship with Iran. He was traveling back from visiting relatives with his 25-year-old cousin. Both were detained on Saturday.
His mother, Shohreh Rahnama, said she waited for him for hours, until he and his cousin were finally released about midnight. “He was hungry and he was thirsty, and I could not see him,” she said.
“How can a 5-year-old be banned? Just because his parents are Iranian? We are American, too,” the Bethesda resident told my colleague, Michael Alison Chandler, at a protest Sunday outside the White House. “I almost died in that airport. I can say it was the worst day of my life.”
We became the kind of place that treated Hameed Khalid Darweesh, who had a valid U.S. visa and worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Iraq, like a criminal when he flew into JFK airport in New York. He was eventually released.
Overnight, America reneged on promises of citizenship and sanctuary to hundreds of people — translators, engineers, information-technology specialists, fixers. Some of them risked their lives for our military.
A friend of mine who has worked in Afghanistan and Indonesia was stunned by this development. Over time, he has helped five people come to the United States from Afghanistan — all of them had risked their lives helping fight terrorism in their homeland and in return, he helped them find new lives here.
He marched Sunday, and as the crowd went past the Islamic Center of Washington, a woman handed out water bottles to the marchers and thanked them for their support. One of the marchers hugged her.
“And she buried her head in [the marcher’s] shoulder and began crying about how scared she is,” he said. “It is tragic to see the human toll on people who are already part of the fabric of America.”
This executive order is a shameful stain on our country, yanking away the American Dream from families who have been here for decades and from families in dangerous parts of the world who sold everything and endured years of vetting to join us.
My parents weren’t translators or academics or intelligence officers who had already risked their lives for America. My dad was a mason and my mom was a seamstress. They were looking for a better life. And America honored that dream.
“Now I look at this, what was happening this weekend, and I say to your tatka [father]: ‘What if they did this to us? Detain us like this?’ ” my mom said. “That’s not America.”
And critics of the ban — from Pope Francis to the business moguls Charles and David Koch — also said this isn’t America.
Why a sudden executive order? To stop terrorism, Trump said.
“There is nothing nice about searching for terrorists before they can enter our country. This was a big part of my campaign,” Trump tweeted Monday morning.
It was wrong when it was part of his campaign, and it’s wrong now.