When they came through the arrivals gate at John F. Kennedy Internationl Airport in 1968, my parents could have been seen as a threat.
It was the middle of the Cold War, and my parents — my mom was 21 and my dad was 23 — had spent their entire lives behind the Iron Curtain in a communist country. And 1968 was the bloodiest year yet for U.S. troops in a war being fought to contain communism. Nearly 17,000 U.S. citizens died that year in Vietnam.
And here came my parents through the airport gates in the middle of all of that, in the fanciest clothes they owned, two people with paperwork — Czechoslovakian passports — that linked them to communism.
They were not detained, they were not questioned. They were allowed into a country symbolized by the Statue of Liberty.
That was the United States of 1968. It is not the United States of today.
My parents watched this weekend, in horror, by the scenes unfolding across this 2017 United States, as people like them — refugees with nothing more than suitcases and dreams — were treated so differently when they walked through those airport gates.
It was the second weekend of Donald Trump’s presidency, and, once again, he’d generated a wave of protests in Washington and around the country. This time the outrage was aimed at his decision to sign an executive order banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.
Trump’s Muslim ban, basically.
At the White House, up Massachusetts Avenue to the Islamic Center of Washington, outside the Trump International Hotel and at airport arrival gates across the region and the nation, thousands of people gathered to show support for refugees, green card holders and even U.S. citizens who were suddenly banned from the U.S.
My mom imagined what would have happened if, back then, President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed an executive order banning all citizens of communist countries from entering the U.S.
A chunk of the U.S. would have bought that, for sure. Fear sells. Communists were the enemy.
But reason, empathy and humanity won.
Because when my parents left everything in Czechoslovakia behind, when they got green cards, and when they raised their hands to pledge allegiance to the U.S., the immigrants of my parents’ era were seen as dissidents, heroes, even.
Of course, it helped that my mother and father are white and from a Christian country. And it helped that our confrontations with communism didn’t take place on U.S. soil, for the most part. So they were celebrated for rejecting the enemy and embracing the U.S.
U.S. 2, Communism 0. USA!
This weekend, we became a country that detained a five-year-old Bethesda, Maryland, boy at Dulles International Airport, kept him from his Iranian-born mother for hours to make sure he wasn’t terrorist threat.
Artiman Jalali was born in the United States and has dual citizenship with Iran. He was traveling back from visiting relatives with his 25-year-old cousin. Both were detained.
His mother, Shohreh Rahnama, said she waited for him hours, until he and his cousin were finally released around midnight. “He was hungry and he was thirsty, and I could not see him,” she said.
“How can a five-year-old be banned? Just because his parents are Iranian? We are Americans, too,” she told my colleague, Michael Alison Chandler, at a protest outside the White House. “I almost died in that airport. I can say it was the worst day of my life.”
We became the kind of place that treated Hameed Khalid Darweesh, who had a valid U.S. visa and worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Iraq, like a criminal when he flew into JFK airport.
Overnight, the U.S. reneged on promises of citizenship and sanctuary to hundreds of people — translators, engineers, IT specialists, fixers. Some of them risked their lives for our military.
A friend of mine who has worked in Afghanistan and Indonesia was stunned by this development. Over time, he’s helped five people come to the U.S. from Afghanistan, all of them risked their lives helping fight terrorism in their home nation and in turn, he helped them find new lives here.
He marched on Sunday, and as the crowd went past the Islamic Center of Washington, a woman handed out water bottles to the marchers and thanked them for her support. One of the marchers hugged her.
“And she buried her head in [the marcher’s] shoulder and began crying about how scared she is,” he said. “It is tragic to see the human toll on people who are already part of the fabric of America.”
This executive order is a shameful stain on our country, yanking the U.S. dream out from under families who have been here for decades and from families in dangerous parts of the world who sold everything and endured years of vetting to join us.
Why a sudden executive order? To stop terrorism, Trump said.
“There is nothing nice about searching for terrorists before they can enter our country. This was a big part of my campaign.” Trump tweeted Monday morning.
It was wrong as part of his campaign, and it’s wrong now.
U.S. knows better than this.