The Americans We Need

A Syrian refugee and her family in the apartment complex where they now live, Sacramento, California, November 16, 2015
Max Whittaker/Reuters
A Syrian refugee and her family in the apartment complex where they now live, Sacramento, California, November 16, 2015

As tens of thousands of people across the United States rushed to airports and took to the streets to protest Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigration by Muslims from seven countries, and refugees generally; as four federal judges issued emergency orders to prevent immediate deportations and sixteen state attorney generals made a rare joint statement calling the president’s action “unconstitutional, un-American, and unlawful”—we recalled a refugee we’d met not long ago from Nepal, where he’d spent more than a decade in a refugee camp. Resettled in New Hampshire, he was working several jobs, having already learned English and gotten a degree as a surgical technician. In that time he’d also saved $16,000 for the down payment on a house—a pretty crappy house in a pretty gritty neighborhood, but still. “USA,” he told us. “It stands for You Start Again.”

Over the last few years, we’ve spent considerable time in refugee enclaves across the nation. They are among the most admirable—and the most American—communities we’ve ever visited. Which is to say, President Trump’s ban on refugees is clearly racist and probably unconstitutional but it’s also just plain stupid, at least if the goal is to build a strong, safe, working nation.

Our interest in refugee enclaves began when our daughter, then a student at Brown, became the mentor of a kindergarten-age Bhutanese girl whose family had been resettled in Providence months before. (The New Hampshire man was Bhutanese as well—at least a hundred thousand Hindus were forced from the country and into Nepali refugee camps in the 1990s, where they languished until resettlement finally got underway about five years ago). In a series of stories for Smithsonian magazine, we documented communities across the country, learning the basic facts along the way: when refugees arrive they get $1,000, intended to cover three months’ rent. That’s it—they’re expected to pay back the cost of their plane tickets to America once they’ve got jobs. So the kindness of strangers is a help.

But it goes both ways. As we spent time with Vietnamese boat people in Oklahoma City, recent Iraqi arrivals in Phoenix, and other groups of recent immigrants, we found ourselves re-inspired with a sense of what once made our country really exceptional: its unparalleled ability to both assimilate and be improved by its newest arrivals.

They tend, for instance, to be ferociously hard workers. We sat in an Oklahoma City pho restaurant (one of dozens in the few blocks of the Vietnamese neighborhood) with a woman who was now general counsel at a major hospital. “For Americans, it’s like figuring out what your dream job is, or some nonsense like that,” she said. “But that was not in the equation for my parents. They wanted that for me, but for them, though they’d been successful in Vietnam, they never looked back. Just to have a job was wonderful. Never being dependent on anyone, making your own way. My dad was always like, ‘If you make a dollar, you save 70 cents.’” Money was not “a taboo topic,” she continued. “The bills got paid at the kitchen table. When my mother would talk with someone, it was like, ‘How much do you make an hour? What are the benefits? What will you do next?’” “When I was a little girl,” the woman added, “I apparently asked the American woman next door, ‘Why do you stay home? You could be making money.’”

And they value education in a way that too many native-born Americans no longer seem to. So many of the people we met were taking courses at technical colleges; young people who once cowered because their homes were being bombed now worried mostly that they’d get a bad grade. Their path was not easy. We met a young woman who’d arrived from Iraq in fourth grade during the war. Her first month in an American school a boy pulled off her head scarf on the school bus. “I didn’t know what to do—I couldn’t speak any English. So I pulled off my shoe and I hit the boy, and then I hit the bus driver because he didn’t do anything.” And then she went on to do what you’re supposed to do, excelling at school, excelling at college. Now she worked helping resettle other Iraqis, mostly people who had worked with the US military, as they arrived, often traumatized, in the Arizona desert. (These are the kinds of refugees the president has just banned: Iraqis displaced after our invasion in 2003, or by ISIS more recently.)

All the refugees and immigrants we met were eager to become American—but also wanted to hold on to parts of their own culture. And no matter what continent they came from, the parts they wanted to hold on to were much the same. In particular, they were appalled at the way Americans tended to treat their parents and grandparents, and hopeful their kids would not follow suit. “When you meet our seniors, there’s a different way of respecting them: saying ‘Namaste,’ for instance,” said one Bhutanese man, who helped teach classes for refugee children. “We want to preserve those relationships. When we were younger they helped us, so when they’re older, we help them. Here it’s different. When you’re eighteen or twenty, you leave your family, and eventually you put the old people in nursing homes. In five years no one from our community has gone into a nursing home.”

America, in other words, is not just doing refugees a favor by letting them in. They’re doing America a favor by coming here—revitalizing our economy, sure, bringing new talent and energy and enterprise to every part of our society, but also helping shore up our culture at its weakest spots. And they’ve been doing this for generations. What schoolchild doesn’t know the words of the Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty—words that protesters all over the country scrawled on cardboard signs this weekend? America as the melting pot, America as a nation of immigrants—that is our collective identity. Even Dick Cheney, the architect of the Iraq war, spoke forcefully against the ban, articulating why many Americans find it reprehensible. “I think this whole notion that somehow we can just say no more Muslims, just ban a whole religion, goes against everything we stand for and believe in,” Cheney said. “I mean, religious freedom has been a very important part of our history and where we came from.”

It’s a remarkable irony that the man who’s trying to stop these people from entering the country has never had to struggle a moment in his life, and hence never developed any of the character we have seen constantly on display in America’s vibrant refugee communities. And it’s even more ironic that he demands “extreme vetting” for people who have, in fact, been checked out more thoroughly than any other Americans before their arrival. If only the nation had conducted even a minimal vetting of our new president.