The signing of “Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” Donald Trump’s executive order banning US entry and re-entry by people from seven Muslim-majority countries, is another reminder that the line between unthinkable and real can be crossed in a matter of minutes. It is a demonstration that legal norms no longer matter, that the worst promises will be kept, that protestations of moral handwashing made out of political expediency can be rescinded as easily as a Form I-551, the legal name of the Alien Registration Card—known soothingly to most as the “Green Card,” despite its vaguely off-white color.
For immigrants, the order changes our entire relationship to the United States. I do not say this because I am naïve about the millions of undocumented people deported by Obama during his presidency, or because I am in denial about how the ban singles out specifically Muslim immigrants. Those who made the conscious decision to immigrate and then received the status of permanent residents already knew about America’s legacy of betrayal and petty inhumanity. We accepted that we were the lucky ones, that for every boatload and Boeingload of successfully landed “New Americans” there had been another ship that was turned back to the ovens and killing fields from which it came. It was a heritage we took upon ourselves, willingly or not, when we chose to accept our status.
Today we have woken up to find that we never left the passport control booth. Somehow, as the officer picked up our passports from the counter, we’d fallen into a kind of reverie. We dreamt that we’d made lives here, fallen in love, built houses, had children, planted trees, all on the secure far side of the little swinging gate. But we never really crossed the line. As the officer looks up from our passports to meet our gaze, we see his face for the first time with a shock of recognition. It is the face of Trump. Somewhere to our right we glimpse the people who were turned back. The gate on the left does not open.
The Department of Homeland Security has now confirmed that permanent residents—green card holders—from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen will be barred from re-entering the United States. This is not a minor detail, another vile fillip in the dark performance. It means changing the whole structure of the so-called immigration debate. For decades, Americans have been told that the problem was undocumented “illegal” immigrants, that extending amnesty to “illegals” would mean betraying the hardworking “real,” “legal” immigrants—that is to say, us. Many of us have stayed silent and allowed ourselves to be used, even as many others knew that “illegals” were their family and friends.
But nothing can express more contempt for the ideology of legal immigration than what Trump has now done. In the worldview conveyed by this order, national origin trumps everything: family, career, residence, civic activism, bureaucratic maneuvering, investments, expensive lawyers, fanatical loyalty to the Republican Party, hatred of other immigrants. On a case-by-case basis these factors (divined through Facebook, for instance) are now allowing border patrol officers to issue indulgences for the unpardonable sin of having been born in a country recently or aspirationally the target of US destabilization efforts. But without an individual pardon they offer no security. “Legals,” “illegals,” refugees: we’re all in the same ship, and the big green statue is growing smaller and smaller in the rear porthole.
I say “we,” even though I am a naturalized citizen. Citizenship has long seemed the final step across the fateful line. Yet to trust in its security now would be foolish. It would be very surprising if a law to strip inconvenient people of citizenship were to not be issued in the near future; Trump, remember, suggested this offhand as a punishment for the First Amendment-protected act of flag burning. But even now it is, in theory, very easy to lose your citizenship. All the government has to do is prove that you lied during the immigration process. An unthinkable thing to do on a government document, I know, but if you have any doubt about how capacious the notion of a lie might be, I recommend leafing through Form N-400, the Application for Naturalization.1 Have you ever indirectly persecuted someone for a political opinion, such as the opinion that a nativist authoritarian state would be a good thing for the people who really count? Have you admitted this to the Department of Homeland Security?
In signing this order Trump has made it clear that the only people who truly belong in the United States are native-born whites and—conditionally—the immigrant aristocracy that supports and perpetuates their rule. He has swelled the ranks of his opponents. The carelessness with which the order was written leaves no doubt that Trump, Steve Bannon, and their co-conspirators think little of legality. The Council on American Islamic Relations is already filing suit to challenge it; if the courts have any integrity left they will strike it down. But the line has been crossed, and what is said cannot be unsaid. For immigrants and for everyone else who has ever suspected that they were only citizens by sufferance, there is now only one way forward. It is time for us “legals” to rejoin the others and to turn the ship back around. We will land whether he wants us or not.