Love and Betrayal in America
By Laila Lalami
Immigrants to America celebrate after taking the oath of citizenship at a 2007 naturalization ceremony in Pomona, California.PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID MCNEW / GETTY
On a blazingly hot morning in July, 2000, I became an American. The ceremony took place thirty miles east of Los Angeles, in Pomona, at a venue ordinarily used for hosting the local county fair. It was a Wednesday, I remember, and I’d worn a pair of new shoes that blistered my feet. My husband was in the only suit he owned, the one he’d put on for our wedding. Ushers directed us to Building Four, where folding chairs were lined up in endless rows. The air smelled of cologne and cut flowers. I turned in my residency card, signed some paperwork, and posed for photographs. Venders hawked plastic folders for naturalization certificates. Then the audience fell quiet for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A judge rose to the dais and, before administering the oath, gave a homily about the rights and responsibilities that awaited citizens. I raised my right hand.
It was love that brought me to that moment. I’d fallen in love with a man, and in the process adopted his country. I was born and raised in Morocco, with its extraordinary arts, rich culture, diverse languages—and authoritarian rule. Every night, the eight-o’clock news on television began with an overview of the King’s activities: he held a council of ministers, he met with this prince or that President, he cut the ribbon to inaugurate a new hotel or golf course. Criticism of him landed tens of thousands of people in jail; many were disappeared, exiled, or murdered. The police, the judiciary, and parliament were little more than extensions of his power. If my father spoke about politics at the dinner table, my mother would tell him to lower his voice; the neighbors might hear.
Though I had many disagreements with the policies of its government, America was also, for me, an idea, a constant struggle toward a more perfect union. Long before I set foot in the United States, I studied its Constitution and its history. Still, I spent weeks studying for my citizenship exam. My husband helped by quizzing me while we were eating dinner or washing dishes. How many voting members are there in the House of Representatives? Four hundred and thirty-five. Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? Thomas Jefferson. What stops a branch of government from being too powerful? Checks and balances.
Sixteen years later, I have a family and a home here. But while my life is in many ways happy and fulfilling, it has never been comfortable. America embraces me with one arm, but it pushes me away with the other. At the airport, I’m regularly singled out for a “random” pat-down or an additional security screening. At cocktail parties, I can always count on one inebriated soul to marvel at the fact that my family “allowed” me to have an education. When I give book talks, I’m often asked about Islam and terrorism, the two subjects often intertwined in the questioner’s mind.
In December, 2015, just five days after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, Donald Trump, then still a reality-television star and real-estate billionaire struggling to distinguish himself from the dozen other Republican candidates for the Presidency, released a statement on “preventing Muslim immigration.” It called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering our country until our representatives can figure out what is going on.” The statement was remarkable for its clarity, and yet journalists, politicians, and the public immediately began to debate the intention behind it, as if the words themselves could not be counted on to be an appropriate reflection of it. Did Trump mean this literally? Should he be taken seriously?
Last week, he signed an executive order that banned all refugees from entering the United States for a period of a hundred and twenty days, and banned visitors and green-card holders from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen from entering the country for ninety days. (Syrian refugees were banned indefinitely.) The order took effect immediately, stranding passengers who were already en route to the United States, and breaking up families by separating husbands from wives, brothers from sisters, daughters from mothers. None of this seemed to matter to the President or his aides, who took to calling the executive order a “travel ban” rather than a Muslim ban, even though it targets Muslim countries only, makes exceptions for Christians refugees, and exempts Israelis born in Iraq and Iran. The ban was just a form of extreme vetting and a temporary measure, the President’s press secretary insisted, as if people stranded abroad could simply reapply for entry in three or four months. But, in that time, what will happen to their jobs in America? Their homes? Their families?
While these lives were being destroyed, the President logged on to Twitter. He called the coverage he’d received in the Washington Post “false and angry”; asked for “somebody with aptitude and conviction” to take over the “failing” New York Times; belittled Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain as “weak on immigration”; mocked Senator Chuck Schumer as “Fake Tears”; and fired Sally Yates, the Acting Attorney General, who refused to defend his ban in the courts. Chaos continued at airports, with some Customs and Border Protection officers following court orders that stayed the ban, and others refusing to comply with them.
I have seen this story before, in the country where I was born. There, too, the law was applied arbitrarily, dissenting public servants were removed from office, and journalists either repeated what they were told or were treated as the enemy. At the moment, some of my friends, colleagues, and neighbors can no longer leave the United States for fear of not being allowed back. My own family worries what will happen to me if the ban is expanded to new countries. “What will we do?” my daughter keeps asking me. “What will you do?”
I’ve protested the President’s ban and donated money to the A.C.L.U. and other civil-rights organizations. I call my congressman and senators every day. But I am under no illusions about what the future might hold for us.
Citizenship ceremonies are still held at the Fairplex in Pomona—every year, thousands of people take the oath there, just as I did. The fairgrounds once served a different purpose. During the Second World War, it became an assembly center for thousands of Japanese-Americans—people who had committed no crime, but whose President designated them a danger through an executive order. From the Fairplex, these Americans were transported to an internment camp in Wyoming, where they were held until the end of the war. Last summer, a plaque was installed at the Fairplex to commemorate them. It reads, “May such injustice and suffering never recur.”
Laila Lalami is the author, most recently of “The Moor’s Account.”Read more » source