First they came for …

I met today with T and M, a Muslim refugee and a Mexican immigrant respectively. Those traits are important, but T and M are much more than that. They are sons and grandsons. They are geeks and athletes and writers. They are part of my extended family of former students. They are humans with all the hopes, dreams and frailties that the rest of us possess. They are my brothers and I love them dearly.ognibene01

T is from Afghanistan. His family fled persecution from the Taliban. T didn’t learn English until he entered kindergarten, as Farsi was the language spoken at home. T’s father has significant health issues that required him to assume more family responsibilities than is typical for an American teen.

M is from Mexico. He came to America because his father’s job required the family to relocate. He was an adolescent when he arrived so the new language was tough to master. At an age when peers are most unforgiving about human differences, he entered a new school, a new country, a new way of life.

When they came to America, T and M faced the normal challenges of immigrants: new language, new foods, new customs. They also dealt with the indignities, stereotypes and slurs that immigrants and refugees always face: beaner, lazy Mexican, raghead, sand jockey, to name a few. With slight variation, these were the same challenges, stereotypes and slurs that my great-grandparents faced when they arrived from Italy in the early 20th century: wop, dago, eye-talian, Mafiosi, to name a few. Check out the immigration museum on Ellis Island and one will see abundant historical evidence that it is part of our human nature to be unkind toward people who seem different from us.

Despite these challenges, T and M have thrived. They are active in myriad school activities and have been accepted into college. They are kind, funny and unfailingly polite. They are loved and respected by teachers and students alike. They personify the American dream, which is why I wept last week when President Trump announced his intentions to build a wall along the Mexican border and to ban immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. I know that, for the foreseeable future, T and M will be looked at with suspicion, will be looked at as “other,” will be looked at as less worthy, all because a political leader wants to score easy points with his base.

President Trump’s policies fail at every level. Economically and intellectually, they make no sense. Many American companies, tech companies in particular, depend on access to the best and brightest employees from around the globe; these people need to be able to move back and forth between countries. Bans, walls, tariffs (think Prohibition or Smoot-Hawley) are emotionally satisfying to some, but they never produce the desired results. Since 2009, more Mexicans have crossed the border from the US into Mexico than in the other direction. If you are averse to Mexicans in America, a wall will literally do the opposite of what you desire. As for Muslim immigrants, the New York Times noted Saturday, “Since September 11, 2001, no one has been killed in the U.S. in a terrorist attack by anyone who emigrated from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan or Yemen.” NO ONE.

Morally and ethically, these polices are offensive. When one looks historically at efforts to dehumanize large groups of people — slavery, bigotry toward Irish and Italian immigrants in the early 20th century, the internment of Japanese during WWII, anti-Semitism in all of its ugly forms, prejudice toward LGBTQ people, etc. — those in favor of restrictions and bigotry always look bad in the end. ALWAYS. In these important historic moments, one can choose to be Martin Luther King or Gov. George Wallace. Here’s a hint: If you’re supporting the wall along the Mexican border or the ban on Muslims from seven countries, you will be viewed as the latter. Guaranteed. This time will not be different. It’s never different. Not ever.

The root of these discriminatory policies is always the same: fear. Fear does bad things to us. It kills our empathy. It removes our ability to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” There are many historic examples of this phenomenon, but I shall choose one that hits close to home. I came out as a gay man at age 22 and I remember similarly awful, restrictive policies being proposed toward people with AIDS at that time. It was a new disease, it was scary beyond words, and some politicians were suggesting draconian measures: that we quarantine our brothers and sisters with AIDS, issue identity cards for those who were HIV-positive, and — wait for it — use tattoos to identify said people. All of us in the gay community, regardless of health status, were viewed by less enlightened people with suspicion and distrust.

Quarantines, much like border walls and immigrant bans, are emotionally comforting during times of turmoil. They give us the illusory sense of safety because it feels like we are doing something. But ask any scientist about their efficacy and you will find zero evidence that they produce good results. None. The reality is that those restrictive policies make things worse. They label entire classes of people as “bad,” and force people into behaviors that ultimately harm society.

The epiphany for me came at a college discussion group when a fellow University of Rochester student said, “Well, if things get really bad and they start rounding up people with AIDS, how long will it be until they come for all gay men, even those of us who don’t have the virus?” It may seem like hyperbole to those who weren’t there at the time, but in 1986 this was not a completely irrational fear. My jaw dropped at his statement because suddenly these inhumane policies might have affected me. And that is the crux of the issue. Today, it’s Mexicans or Muslims from select countries. These arbitrary restrictions seem perfectly reasonable to those who are neither. But tomorrow it could be you. Or me. Any of us. All of us. First they came for the immigrants …

Fifty years from now, perhaps sooner, people will look back at this time period and ask one of two questions:

1) How did Americans let these horrible things occur?

2) How did Americans resist the fear and bigotry of its leader in order to reclaim its position as a beacon of hope in the world?

For T, M and many others, we need to join hands, work hard and make sure it’s the latter.

(Richard Ognibene of the Fairport Educators Association was the 2008 New York State Teacher of the Year.)

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