For many, today’s America is the pinnacle of the continuous development of humanity toward ever-greater freedom. It represents the fruition of the cries of liberty at the gates of Bastille in France, the struggles of the abolitionists and the suffragists and the aspirations of the civil rights movements of the past century. Its values and principles are the culmination of the efforts of generations of social activists and freedom fighters. It is the vehemence of these ideals, the promises of liberty and equality, that draws thousands of immigrants here every year; it is the essence of these ideals that behooves Americans to accept these immigrants with open arms. As the beneficiaries of the progress achieved by the many sacrifices of the previous generations, we are obligated to preserve these hard-fought ideals. This entails the responsibility to study, understand and, if necessary, take action to protect the bedrocks of our civil society.
The intrinsic irony in the phrase “nation of immigrants” — first popularized by former President Kennedy — symbolizes human progress. Originating from Latin “natio,” which translates to “race” or “tribe,” the word “nation” has historically referred to people of the same origin. America, the nation of immigrants, is the tribe that is not tribal, the nation whose membership is not restricted to any particular nationality, a human effort to break away from the prejudices ingrained in us by our shared, but divisive, history.
The American dream, the human dream, is the ideal that every human being, regardless of race, sex or religious background, should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination and initiative. Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously wrote: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” The American dream is an attempt at breaking the invisible chains of the human caste system, which deprives us of our birthright freedoms.
The sudden implementation of the executive order banning the entry of immigrants and foreign travelers into the United States based on their places of birth was a pushback against the vision of the American dream. On Jan. 27, a group of Iranian students and I gathered to watch the coverage of the president’s signing of the executive order. One of our close friends — a University of Michigan Art & Design alum — was on a flight back from Iran. She had traveled to Iran to take part in an art project in Tehran. As we anxiously awaited the news of her arrival, tales of the cruel implementation of the ban demoralized us. I listened in disbelief as I heard the ordeals of the Yale professor who did not know when he would be able to see his wife and newborn child and the story of the elderly, legally blind resident who was denied his medications at the airport while being detained. I could hardly hold back tears as I watched the five-year-old boy who was handcuffed for hours in the airport being showered by his mother’s kisses after his release, his innocent eyes desperately searching for answers in his parents’ faces. Fortunately, our friend was allowed into the country with only minor issues at customs.
The events of the past few months have been a sobering reminder that our journey toward liberty and equality is not always a smooth and peaceful one. It reminded us of the horrific mistakes of the past. It reminded us of the MS St. Louis and its innocent passengers who were sent back to Europe from the shores of America, many ending up in Nazi concentration camps. It reminded us of the Japanese families who were sent to internment camps during World War II, who were ripped out of their daily lives for crimes they did not commit. It reminded us of the darkest chapters of the history of this nation.
This latest onslaught on the immigrant community is not only an attack on the lives and the dignities of the immigrant families, it is also an attack on our human dream. It is an attempt to reduce the role of the leadership of the free world to the chieftainship of a tribe. This is a challenge to the vision that led to the formation of this country, that America is “an asylum to the good, the persecuted, and to the the oppressed.” It is a test of the resolve of the American people in safeguarding their values. However, as an optimist, I believe that our journey toward liberty is unstoppable, that this is the last gasp of age-old prejudices struggling to survive the pace of human progress. I hope and believe that, despite these setbacks, you and I, along with the rest of humanity, will someday realize our great human dream.
Farhad Shirani is a postdoctoral research fellow in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Michigan.