In a letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp in 1788, President George Washington wrote that he “always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable Asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.”
When speaking to the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1938, Franklin Delano Roosevelt urged Americans to, “Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”
In 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration Act while standing in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and stated that “Our beautiful America was built by a nation of strangers. From a hundred different places or more they have poured forth into an empty land, joining and blending in one mighty and irresistible tide. The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources—because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.”
In an address on immigration in 1981, Ronald Reagan famously remarked that “Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands. No free and prosperous nation can by itself accommodate all those who seek a better life or flee persecution. We must share this responsibility with other countries.”
When speaking to the public in 2014 about executive orders he recently signed temporarily protecting a large swath of immigrants from deportations, Barack Obama said that “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too. My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too.”
Now, these are just words. And it’s certainly worth noting that the policies of pretty much everyone on this list did not align entirely with these rosy, kumbaya statements. Let’s not forget Executive Order 9066, signed by FDR in 1942. The order declared regions of the U.S. as war zones enabling us to set up Japanese internment camps. We ripped over 110,000 Japanese Americans from their homes during WWII and held them in camps scattered on the West Coast.
Following 9/11, George W. Bush enacted the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS,) which was not too dissimilar to a portion of what Trump is proposing. Every male above the age of 16 who immigrated from any of the 25 countries listed, was required to register with the government, undergo lengthy interrogations and check in with immigration offices periodically thereafter. 24 of the 25 countries listed were predominantly Muslim. North Korea was the only exception. The system was a catastrophic failure. It resulted in zero convictions. ZERO. It was, however, successful in tearing immigrant communities apart by singling them out, treating them like second-class citizens, deporting those who missed deadlines by the slimmest of margins and eroding faith in federal law enforcement. Last year, 200 civil rights organizations wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to rescind NSEERS. The program was delisted in 2011, but many procedures surrounding it remained until Obama finally dismantled the program in December.
NSEERS was horrible. It was government aided racial discrimination, and it should’ve never happened. But by all accounts, Trump wants to bring back this system, or one just like it. And beyond that, he is planning to halt all immigration from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen indefinitely and cease immigration entirely for the next 120 days at minimum. Doing this now, when there are thousands upon thousands of homeless Syrians, among others, looking for a safe haven is heartless and cruel. And Trump’s rhetoric is of another knit entirely compared to what we’re used to. He paints everything as us vs. them. Remember, this is the same guy who was all over Jeb Bush for saying that many immigrants come here as an “act of love” and who began his campaign calling Mexicans “rapists” who bring drugs and crime to the U.S. even though research found that first-gen immigrants commit far fewer crimes than people born in the U.S.
Trump’s actions in this realm have the power to alter the fabric of this country. We must remain an inclusive, immigrant-friendly region or we will lose our beauty and color entirely. Of all the things that make this country what it is, our diversity is what we should be most proud of. The New Colossus, the iconic Emma Lazarus poem (partly featured in the art for this piece) written to raise money for construction surrounding the Statue of Liberty has become a secondary motto for the United States.
A plaque on the statue itself features most of the second verse:
Safety is important, but once we let the fear attached to it influence our moral code we have lost. There may be no way to stop much of this from happening from a macro sense, as many in the GOP seem to agree with the president, but we, those who are opposed to these measures, are far from powerless. If Trump institutes a Muslim registry, we all should register as Muslim and muddle the entire system. If we stand up in unison to many of Trump’s actions, we have the ability to deflate their influence.
Bobby Kennedy once said, “Ultimately, America’s answer to the intolerant man is diversity.” Trump wants us to fear the other like he does. He wants to remake America in his own image. But he can’t do it if we don’t let him.