The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I have served in the Air Force and in Congress. People still tell me to ‘go back’ to China.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) at the entrance to his office in Washington in March 2017. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Ted Lieu, a Democrat, is a U.S. representative from California.

I served on active duty in the U.S. Air Force and currently serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Yet I still experience people telling me to “go back” to China or North Korea or Japan. Like many immigrants, I have learned to brush off this racist insult. I never thought the president of the United States would tell members of Congress to “go back” to another country.

President Trump has often crossed the line of what constitutes decent behavior. But this time feels different, because he is now attacking legal immigration and U.S. citizenship. His statements on Sunday and since then imply that immigrants are somehow less loyal to our country, less American, and that we should “go back” or “leave” if we disagree with him.

Trump's tweets telling minority congresswomen to “go back” to their countries follows a history of racism and nativism. Voters will decide if this is effective. (Video: The Washington Post)

Twenty years ago, I wrote an op-ed in The Post about what it was like to wear my Air Force uniform while people questioned my loyalty to the United States, all because of the color of my skin. I was in my Air Force blues when a woman asked if I was in the Chinese air force.

Ted Lieu: ‘Are you in the Chinese Air Force?’

The suspicion that immigrants are not to be trusted or are unpatriotic is not just wrong; it is un-American. And dangerous. Yet it has marred America’s past, including with the 19th-century “Yellow Peril” hysteria, the internment during World War II of more than 110,000 people who happened to be of Japanese descent and accusations against Jewish Americans of harboring dual loyalties.

That brand of bigotry was at the core of Trump’s online comments attacking the patriotism of Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) — insults he continued to defend on Tuesday.

To say I was furious when I read Trump’s tweets would be an understatement. It brought me back to the feelings I had when writing in 1999: about belonging, sacrifice and what it means to be an American. Just as my Air Force uniform didn’t protect me from racism then, the lapel pins worn by members of Congress didn’t shield those four representatives from Trump’s hateful venom. It didn’t matter that three of the women were actually born in the United States or that Omar immigrated from Somalia as a child.

The problem for the president is that many Americans are immigrants or have friends or family members who are immigrants. The American people continue to support newcomers. A Gallup poll last year found that 75 percent of Americans believe immigration is good for the country. The American people understand that what makes the nation great is not people’s bloodlines or how long ago their ancestors arrived here, but their character and belief in the Constitution.

A lot has changed in 20 years since I wrote that Post op-ed. Americans elected the nation’s first black president; there is a Hispanic American on the Supreme Court; a woman is House speaker; a record number of Asian Americans are in Congress; and for the first time, Native American women and Muslim American women are serving in Congress.

“The United States has more immigrants than any other country in the world,” according to the Pew Research Center, and “the U.S. foreign-born population reached a record 44.4 million in 2017.” The same report found that immigrants and their descendants will drive 88 percent of the United States’ population growth through 2065. The president cannot stop most of this demographic change, especially without the consent of Congress.

The United States represents hope, freedom and opportunities to those who are born here and to those who are not. Those values are part of the United States’ fabric. Diversity — both in ideas and people — has always been one of the country’s greatest assets.

Americans — white, black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American — understand that we are better than the president’s xenophobic message. Americans understand that rising drug prices, wage stagnation and inadequate infrastructure affect everyone, regardless of race. It is heartening to see the reaction to Trump’s remarks from countless Americans who recognized that his words were repulsive. Notwithstanding the current occupant of the Oval Office, the United States is, and will remain, an exceptional nation.

Read more:

George T. Conway III: Trump is a racist president

Richard Cohen: Republicans must acknowledge that their party has been taken over by a racist

Frida Ghitis: Trump’s racist tweets come straight from the authoritarian playbook

Dana Milbank: The racism stops when Trump goes back to the place from which he came

Jason Rezaian: I’m not going anywhere. Neither is Iranian culture in America.