Trump’s campaign-trail immigration slurs are now policies and tragedies. Latest example: Hundreds of families still separated despite a judge’s order.
He was born about 1895 in Bialystok, now in Poland but then part of the Russian Empire. Ten years later, amid anarchy, revolution and shooting in the streets, including at his mother, he was smuggled out of Russia in a hay wagon. He came through Ellis Island and joined his older brothers in America, where an immigration official had suggested Smith would be an easier name than Schneydman. He attended public school in New York City for several years, then quit to contribute to the family income. He shelved books at a Columbia University library. He became a shipping clerk for a clothing company. He started his own company, one that made ladies’ coats and suits.
Along the way he got married, had a son and a daughter, became an expert tennis player and ice skater. He rode the train to work with a real estate developer named Fred Trump. He invested in an ambitious project called the Empire State Building, and persuaded most of his relatives to do the same. He subscribed to The New York Times and the Metropolitan Opera. He bought a winter escape in Florida — a penthouse.
This was my grandfather.
Like so many desperate to come here now, he and his family were fleeing violence. He was a little boy who didn’t speak a word of English. But he wasn’t separated from his mother or sent back to Russia or denied entry because he was the youngest brother and therefore, one of the last links on a “chain” of migration. He was given a chance to prove himself, and here I am. Here we all are.
No longer a ‘nation of immigrants’
I feel very fortunate that my ancestors arrived before the doors slammed shut on people trying to escape violence, war, poverty and religious persecution. Before we were, officially, no longer “a nation of immigrants.” Before Donald Trump.
Since the day he announced his presidential campaign, Trump has attacked and slandered immigrants, legal and illegal alike. And since the day he became president, along with the shockingly intolerant words and attitudes, he has followed through with hostile policies. There are always creative new ways to twist the knife. Creative, new and tremendously destructive to human beings, families, our economy, our safety, our values, our national self-image, our standing in the world, our very exceptionalism.
It wasn’t always about ripping apart desperate families seeking asylum. It has been a pileup that started in Trump’s first week with executive orders to fulfill his campaign promises — ordering up penalties for sanctuary cities, a “physical wall” along the southern border, aggressive pursuit of “transnational” gangs and drug cartels (as if we weren’t going after them already), three versions of the infamous and eventually successful travel ban barring our doors to people from several majority-Muslim countries.
Then came the address to Congress on Feb. 28, 2017, with more paeans to the “great, great wall” and boasts that the “bad ones” — immigrant “gang members, drug dealers and criminals” — are “going out as I speak” (actually it was President Barack Obama who focused resources on deporting dangerous criminals). And the centerpiece of the tar-immigrants section of the evening: VOICE, a special new homeland security hotline for “Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement,” and introduction of four families victimized by immigrants (never mind that immigrants, even undocumented ones, commit less crime than native-born Americans).
There were executive orders on enhanced vetting of refugees (as if they weren’t already being vetted) and visa applicants. Proposals to cut legal immigration and end the visa lottery. A plan to end “chain migration,” which likely would have kept my grandfather out. Who, after all, could have predicted that a Russian 10-year-old would become a pillar of the New York business world and the Miami Beach cultural scene?
Now the administration has moved on to denying asylum for people fleeing both domestic violence and the gang violence that supposedly holds America in its grip. And it is trying to denaturalize people who are naturalized citizens. Maybe they cheated; maybe their name is just slightly different on one of their many forms.
Whatever it is, detain and deport.
Deadline for reuniting children and parents
Those caught in the Trump net include a father delivering pizza to an army base; an Iowa teen caught with 1 gram of marijuana worth about $10; a gifted but troubled young auto mechanic “escorted” to Mexico and quickly killed by a gang; people testifying to help police at courthouses; sick people at hospitals.
And pillars of communities, such as Jorge Garcia, a Michigan landscaper, husband and father of two, exiled to a country he hadn’t seen in nearly 30 years, and Roberto Beristain, an Indiana husband, father and restaurant owner whose wife voted for Trump because she thought he’d deport only “bad hombres.”
The administration’s latest tragic policy was to separate asylum-seeking parents from their children at the border, with no system to keep track of them and apparently no intention of reuniting them. An appalled judge gave the administration until Thursday to reunite everyone. That wasn’t happening.
I am not saying we should keep our immigration system exactly the way it is. But let’s be smart and honest and humane about changing it, not biased and cruel. Nobody wants to wake up and realize America hasn’t yet hit bottom — that the Trump administration might think of something worse than all we’ve seen so far. Worse, even, than taking children from their parents.
Jill Lawrence is the commentary editor of USA TODAY and author of “The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock.” Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence
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