Being American is About More Than Nationality

This piece first appeared in the Kentucky Standard Tuesday, February 7th 2017.

It was a Friday evening, and I had just finished a longer-than-planned shift at work. I was eager to make it home for dinner with my wife, who I don’t see as often as I would like. The screen on my iPhone was a mix of text notifications from my wife informing me about dinner and news updates regarding the current administration’s executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim majority countries — including Iran, where my father was born and where several of my relatives still live. A quick scan of Facebook told me that rallies were hastily being organized at international airports across the country, lawyers were rushing to the aid of detained persons, and numerous organizations were speaking out against the executive order.

Overnight, things got worse. In the chaos, many legally allowed to enter the country had been detained or sent back to their countries of origin. For some, the executive order had been implemented mid-flight, leaving them unaware of what awaited. Others were not allowed to board flights to the United States. Families were ripped apart by the stroke of a pen.

As I fumbled around searching for coffee, sliding through my Facebook feed, reading the heart-wrenching stories shared by people across the country, I realized that my worst fears were starting to become reality. My own family would be affected by the measure. My family living in Iran wouldn’t be able to visit this summer or attend my wedding celebration. My cousin living in Dubai couldn’t make a planned trip to visit her father in California. One close friend, a French-Iranian, wouldn’t be able to come to the U.S. in the fall. Another had to tell his father, a U.S. green card holder visiting relatives in Iran, that he might not be able to return home to Buffalo, N.Y.

I wanted to viscerally lash out at Trump fans, especially friends and members of my family, but I realized that wouldn’t be productive. I had to make an emotional appeal to those I knew. I had to show them that the Muslim ban affected people they knew, people they loved. I had to show them that it wasn’t just about preventing terrorists from entering the country, that it also prevented people like my father from not just living a life of their choosing, but also from having a positive impact in whichever community they settled.

Those of us who are Muslim- or Iranian-American are afraid and if recent days are any indication, we have every right to be. The current administration has followed through with one of its main campaign promises. What’s the next shoe to drop, forcing Muslims to register, forcing us to wear special ID badges?

And now, the White House’s chief national security adviser has put Iran on notice, threatening to attack if it continues to be provocative in the Persian Gulf. As an American, this is a worrying and unnecessary escalation. As an Iranian-American, this is downright scary. I fear, as many of my friends do, that our security in this country may be in jeopardy, that our lives in America may no longer be viable, especially if the current trend continues.

While I agree that religious extremists constitute a threat, banning immigrants and refugees from these seven countries benefits only the extremists. It validates their propaganda that America cannot be trusted, that America is evil, that America is at war with Islam.

America has always sought to be the city on the hill — a ray of sunshine for those living dreary lives in the shadow of dictators. And that goal is what gave many across the globe, not just in the Middle East, the power to rise up, to oppose whatever authoritarian they faced. They knew, at least, America would give them protection, would provide them with the opportunity to start over if all were lost. For some, that no longer applies as the current administration has done irrevocable damage to America’s image abroad and in the process endangered the very thing they sought to protect — our national security.

Being American isn’t just a nationality; it’s also a state of being. It’s a mindset that tells us we are all entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, along with a healthy respect for the rule of law. There are Americans across the globe, living in distant lands, with names hard to pronounce, wearing clothing we don’t recognize, worshiping a god that may not be familiar to us. We should be supporting them whether or not they’re fleeing their countries. And this executive order violates that very idea. Our country, and the American ideology, will only be strengthened by opening our doors to those in need.

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