President Trump’s second attempt at an illegal travel ban against Muslims has inspired me to think more deeply about the history of refugees in this country.

What would art be like if Piet Mondrian, the Dutch painter and World War II refugee, was denied access to New York City in 1940? Or if Marc Chagall, the Jewish-Russian painter, was not allowed to seek asylum in the U.S. when he escaped Bolshevism?

What would have happened to Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. Secretary of State, if she and her family did not flee to America from Czechoslovakia in 1948?

What would have befallen Hannah Arendt, the political theorist, who was born in Germany, in 1933 and fled persecution by the Nazis, eventually becoming a naturalized citizen of the U.S. in 1950?

How different would the field of anthropology be if Claude Levi-Strauss, the French-Jewish ethnologist, was turned away from America after he was stripped of his citizenship under the Vichy Anti-Semitic laws?

How would the world of literature be different if Vladimir Nabokov was killed in the Russian Civil War rather than emigrating to the safety of America? Or if Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer and winner of 1970 Nobel Prize, was not allowed to go to the U.S., but was instead executed in the USSR?

Lastly, what would have happened to Albert Einstein if Princeton did not receive him in 1938? The Nobel Prize-winning physicist escaped Nazi Germany because an American university was willing to honor and reward his intellectual gifts by granting him sanctuary.

As these names surface to the forefront of my mind, I wonder if Trump’s cynical and unconstitutional ban is unique today because these individuals were white European intellectuals from non-Muslim majority countries? What other conclusion can be drawn? Over the past 100 years there has been more terrorism in places such as Germany and Russia than Yemen and Iran.

President Trump and his advisers do not want to understand that this country is bound together by the principles of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. These principles apply to all people. To be American is to be guided and protected by certain inalienable laws. It has nothing to do with geography, language, or religious beliefs.

For more than two centuries the hope has been that America can live up to its promise and be a place of openness, trust, and love of diversity for all human beings regardless of age, gender, race, class, or ideology.

Whenever we have tried to realize this promise, we have paved the way for groundbreaking achievements in the arts and sciences. It is the immigrant and refugee who has been America’s greatest legacy. If for nothing else, the world admires us because we are a nation of immigrants. From the first people to trek across the Bering Strait to the next El Salvadoran migrant to cross the Texas border, America is America because they are here.

George Cassidy Payne
Founder, Gandhi Earth Keepers International


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