At least two of our newest citizens seem to have been entirely unaware that this most sacred of ceremonies would be broadcast at the Republican convention, to make the president seem kinder and gentler for suburbanites queasy about his policy of yanking screaming babies from their mothers at the border. So the five — two of them Muslims, a group that their host, during his first presidential campaign, proposed banning from entering the United States — looked on, with an unsmiling bust of Abraham Lincoln as backdrop, and cheered. What choice did they have? It was a humiliating spectacle and physically risky, to boot — none of them had a mask on, and neither did any of the eminences present. The masks wouldn’t look good on TV; they would be off-message for a convention that is a celebration of, above all, the inalienable right of Americans to commit mass suicide.
The new citizens are here among us because of provisions that Trump has spent his entire term trying to eliminate. Sudha Narayanan came here in the F2 category, as the wife of a foreign student. If she were to apply today, neither she nor her husband would be allowed into the country to study at any of the hundreds of American universities that have opted for the safer online-only option. Neimat Awadelseid is here because her brother sponsored her, through the family reunification provision, which Trump derisively calls “chain migration.” Her home country, Sudan, was on a list of countries whose nationals were banned from applying to the diversity visa lottery earlier this year, for spurious “national security” reasons. “It is painful, what he did, his policy toward my country,” Awadelseid later told The Washington Post.
“As citizens you are now stewards of this magnificent nation, a family comprised of every race, color, religion and creed,” Trump proclaimed. This is the same person who reportedly asked, two years ago, “Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?” The same person who allegedly asked why we couldn’t have more Norwegians and fewer — or zero — Haitians.
When I became a citizen, in 1988, the New Jersey judge at my swearing-in gave a speech about the benefits and duties of citizenship. It was a beautiful and moving spectacle, but it would not have been so if President Ronald Reagan had used it as a prop in a reelection effort. What was especially galling about this recent incident was Trump’s manner: a game-show host awarding citizenship as a prize for a lucky few, like a new SUV or a Caribbean vacation. “You’ve earned the most prized, treasured, cherished and priceless possession anywhere in the world. It’s called American citizenship.” It’s not you who bestows citizenship, Mr. President. It’s the Constitution.
As with any car given out on a TV game show, it’s wise to look under the hood for its real value. Is American citizenship, today, really the most prized anywhere in the world? The number of Americans renouncing citizenship is at an all-time high. A host of other countries — New Zealand, Vietnam, Iceland, South Korea — have handled the pandemic so much better than we have. Their citizens are healthy and can go to restaurants and schools, and their economies are on the mend.
With the highest number of deaths on the planet from the pandemic, America will have to try harder than ever to attract immigrants. If I were a doctor or a techie in India or China, and if I had my choice of America, Germany, South Korea or New Zealand to take my skills and my family to, which would I choose? Before 2016, the clear answer would have been America. Now, would I still choose the most stricken and riven country, with the worst health care in the industrialized world, and the biggest “KEEP OUT!” sign?
Since the pandemic began, Trump and the Republican Party have been using it as an excuse to eliminate asylum, on fabricated public health grounds, and drastically cut legal immigration, for equally fabricated economic reasons. And they have managed, with their enablers at Fox News, to mainstream the most extreme xenophobia. Historically, America has been good at importing the talent it needs. Although immigrants are only 14 percent of the population, we make up a fourth of all health-care workers and nearly three-quarters of Silicon Valley’s tech workers, start a quarter of all new businesses, and earned a third of all the science Nobel Prizes given to Americans.
In June 2018, I went to Friendship Park south of San Diego, the only place along the 3,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border where immigrants — documented, undocumented or semi-documented — are allowed to meet their families on the other side. I encountered a Mexican construction worker who hadn’t seen his mother for 17 years, because he was working incredibly long hours every day on this side of the fence, earning money for her hospital bills. Across the ugly, industrial barrier, his mother thrust her pinkie, and he touched her pinkie with his, the only contact that the gap in the fence would allow, in what the migrants call the “pinkie kiss.” And she said that she loved him, and he told her that he missed her. This son is not a rapist or a drug dealer, as Trump has often described people like him. He’s an ordinary hero. We’re lucky he came here, with his work ethic, his love of family. America’s cruel, arbitrary, capricious, corrupt and self-defeating immigration laws keep out countless people just like him, hurting us as a nation and wrecking human lives.
It’s a mystery why Trump, son of an immigrant and husband to another, and born in Queens, the most diverse borough in the nation, hates immigrants so much. Rima Gideon earned a degree in psychology, he noted about one of the proud new citizens. “In other words, she can figure me out.” Oh yes, Donald, we immigrants have you figured out. You’re no friend of ours.