At my college, the semester just started. And in my classes, as usual, I have an array of students from other countries, including Syria and Lebanon. I have said on other occasions that my Middle Eastern students are almost always some of the best, hardest-working, least-complaining ones. It’s just an anecdotal observation based on years of experience, but make of that what you will.
So it was disturbing as hell to read about Harvard freshman Ismail Ajjawi, who is a Palestinian from Lebanon, being denied entry to the United States because, as he explained it, a Customs and Border Protection agent searched his phone and laptop. “She said that she found people posting political points of view that oppose the U.S. on my friend list,” Ajjawi said. Because of those friends’ posts, his visa to study here was revoked. Ajjawi said he himself has never posted anything political on social media.
It makes me wonder where this examination of what’s-on-your-laptop will end for some foreign students. It makes me wonder if some asshole CBP agent will look at the computer of one of my students one day and see the readings, like plays that are sympathetic to the Palestinians, and then perhaps that asshole CBP agent will dig a little deeper and see that the student’s professor is a wild and woolly blogger/tweeter who has called President Trump all kinds of horrific shit and strongly suggested that Trump is a rapist who fucks his own daughter.
Because, see, if someone can be excluded from coming to the United States because his Facebook friends said the United States is, say, a racist country that mistreats immigrants and supports maniacal dictators, then what’s to prevent the next person to have a visa revoked be an international student who went home to visit family over the summer and just so happens to have taken me or any politically-active professor who has a problem with the policies of this bullshit president and his bullshit party. What’s to prevent any CBP agent from looking at the reading list for the student’s classes and seeing The Communist Manifestoon there and freaking the fuck out?
(Quick aside: We don’t read Marx in my classes. But I do give a lecture on understanding Marxism as it relates to other stuff we’re reading.)
The mistreatment of immigrants both legal and undocumented by the Trump administration is getting increasingly hysterical and increasingly savage. This includes the honestly stunning and horrific change in a policy that gave a visa waiver to immigrants who are receiving life-saving medical treatment in the United States, and, in some cases, their families. Now, cancer patients who are in the middle of their treatment face deportation. You can put that on the growing pile of inhumane policies, and add in Trump’s “joke” that he wants his wall built no matter how it’s done, even illegally, and he’ll pardon anyone who breaks the law to do it, as well as his taking billions of dollars from FEMA to build it. (Let’s not even get into the clusterfuck of irony that is illegally building a wall to keep people from coming here illegally.)
This isn’t just hateful, xenophobic, and racist. It’s all actually un-American. While the United States has rarely lived up to the principles that it has propagated about itself, at the very least there was an understanding that America is not just for Americans, that the very idea of America is of people who made a journey to get here and that the only reason America exists is because people continued to make that journey (and kill the people who were here first and take their land). I mean, fuck, one way to see slavery is forced immigration. They weren’t Americans but we sure as hell exploited, raped, and brutalized them for their labor in order to build the goddamn country.
The United States has always been in conflict about the next wave of immigrants, whether it was the Irish or the Chinese or Eastern Europeans or Latinx people. Or Middle Easterners. Ultimately, though, every population that comes here, even just as students for a few years, is part of America, even if they never become Americans.
And we’ve always fucking let students come here. Jesus, does no one remember the insanity about Iranian students studying here after the revolution in their country in 1979? I knew someone whose government job in the mid-1980s was to spy on them and make sure they didn’t do anything “wrong.” You know what those students did? They fucking studied. They learned the United States is not the enemy. My spy-pal realized early how useless his job was, but he sure as hell loved hanging out with the Iranians. (He did file report after report about how nothing was going on.) Now, between 2015 and 2018, the number of applications for international students to come here has plunged 40%. Can you fucking blame them? Hell, if I were a Lebanese kid, I’d apply to Canadian schools.
Ultimately, incidents like what happened to Ajjawi or not giving flu vaccines to migrants in detention centers have nothing to do with protecting the lives of Americans. It’s about fear, and not just fear of violence. It’s about the constant fear that a new population will come to the United States and change it, make it less white, less homogeneous. But that shit never works.
Failing to allow the United States to change, to evolve, undermines the entire idea of America. Like I said, while we don’t live up to our principles, at least we had them.