The Betrayal of Legal Immigrants Who Followed the Rules

Donald Trump sowed fear and anger at U.S. airports over the weekend by preventing the entry of green-card holders, a group most Republicans claim to value and failed to protect.

Conor Friedersdorf / The Atlantic

For the dozen years that I have been covering immigration politics and policy, the vast majority of Republicans I’ve interviewed in California, Washington, D.C., Colorado, Arizona, and New York have always avowed that they support legal immigration. In fact, many righteously insisted that they oppose illegal immigration because it is unfair to the people who “waited their turn” and “followed the rules.”

Where did those Republicans go?

On Friday, the Trump administration signed an executive order that betrayed hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants. All waited their turn, diligently  applying for a Permanent Resident Card, which the U.S. gives “to individuals granted authorization to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis.” All followed the rules, paid the fees, and were granted their “green card,” which says this at the top:

Then Donald Trump issued an executive order that threatens to bar entry to as many as 500,000 of those people––the ones from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. If they were lucky enough to be in the United States when the order was issued, they’re fine, but if they leave they cannot necessarily return. If they were on vacation or a business trip or visiting family when the order was issued, their whole lives have been upended.

Trump upended their lives with a cruel stroke of his pen.

“It’s extraordinary cruel,” Stephen Legomsky, a former chief counsel to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told Reuters. More than that, it is needlessly cruel. Charles C.W. Cooke, editor of National Review Online, explained the idiocy of the approach as only someone who has himself applied for permanent residency can:

...permanent residents are expected to live in America by default, and are in fact penalized if they don’t. By law and by expectation, this country is their home; their base; the ground in which their roots are planted. Because of this, permanent residents are able to purchase, own, and carry firearms; they are required to register with the selective service; and they are treated for tax and welfare purposes as are U.S. citizens. They can’t vote or serve on a jury, but, other than, they effectively enjoy all the liberties that natural born Americans enjoy. When they re-enter the country, the agent says “Welcome Home,” which is a big change from their visa days. They are not Americans, and they mustn’t pretend to be. But they are as close as one can get without being one.

And that’s fine. As a permanent resident myself, I don’t expect to be handed a passport or treated like a citizen (for what it’s worth, I like Josh Marshall’s conception of “thick citizenship”). But I do expect to be treated differently than a guy who just got off a plane for the first time — and not least because the process of obtaining a green card is tough. It took me a year from application to acceptance, and the vast majority of that time was taken up by the FBI. In addition to furnishing the government with my residential history, my employment history, and my criminal record (which is clean), I had to provide details of any clubs or societies to which I have ever belonged, to promise I wasn’t a terrorist or a Nazi or a communist, and to submit my fingerprints and a government-taken photograph on top. Which is to say: I had to go through the wringer before my card was issued. Because I was spotlessly clean my application wasn’t too involved, but I have friends whose days have been taken up by details of their parking tickets or their boyhood indiscretions or their penchant for getting fired. This is a tough nut to crack.

I bring this up not because I object to these strictures. I don’t. In fact, I’m hard-line enough to think that it would make sense to include some form of civics-and-language test prior to green cards being issued. Rather, I bring it up because I can’t work out how applying Trump’s rule to the holders of green cards makes any logical sense. As I have noted, these are people who have already gone through the vetting process; people who have been granted permanent residency; people who have made their lives here on the understanding that to fail to do so will incur penalties. What possible sense can it make to temporarily restrict their travel?

It makes no sense. It makes us no safer. It needlessly harms hundreds of thousands of rule-followers who are either barred from reentering their home or unable to leave and come back without going through an opaque, “case by case” screening process at a foreign consulate with no fixed procedures or timeline or any guarantee that they will be cleared, eventually, so long as they don’t actually pose any security threat.

This gravely harms the permanent residents with no benefit for other Americans. In fact, it harms the United States citizens who are their spouses, family members, friends, and employers. And it harms those of us who are ashamed of how our country betrayed them.

America’s behavior here is egregiously unfair. Republican politicians ought to be objecting.

Instead, most are silent, as the GOP becomes an anti-legal-immigrant party. They are silent even as the order shows the Trump administration to be incompetent or malevolent.

Rudy Giuliani told Fox News that the order sprang from a committee he formed for the purpose of constructing a Muslim ban in a way that would pass legal muster. He added that the ban eventually came to focus on countries where there was “substantial evidence that people were sending terrorists into our country.” Yet the order does not affect numerous Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers; the United Arab Emirates or Egypt, home to other 9/11 hijackers; or Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was hidden. In this sense, the order manages to be prejudicial and politically correct at the same time.

“The Trump White House has incurred all the odium of an anti-Muslim religious test, without any attendant real-world benefit,” my colleague David Frum argued.

“This document is the implementation of a campaign promise to keep out Muslims,” Ben Wittes wrote, “moderated only by the fact that certain allied Muslim countries are left out because the diplomatic repercussions of including them would be too detrimental.” This assault on legal immigrants from numerous majority-Muslim countries was carried out by an administration where this man is the vice-president:

It was carried out in a country where Republicans control both the House and the Senate, and could take immediate action to protect legal immigrants if they wanted to do so.  Senator Jeff Flake and Representative Justin Amash are among the exceptions who spoke out.

Democrats were more reliably vocal in opposition.

Many of the people doing the utmost to advocate for those harmed by the executive order were volunteer lawyers flocking to international airports on their day off, and protesters in liberal cities like Los Angeles, where hundreds gathered at LAX Saturday to sing the Star Spangled Banner and voice their support for the values that Trump is assaulting:

Star Spangled Banner at LAX protest, 1/28/2017 from Conor Friedersdorf on Vimeo.

That gathering was on the departures level.

I met Siavosh Naji-Talakar downstairs at international arrivals. The United States citizen, a medical school student in Phoenix, Arizona, had flown to LAX that day to pick up his Iranian grandmother, who has a Green Card, for her regular visit to the United States. “She's very old. She had a triple bypass and other health problems. And I'm just worried about her health if they send her back,” he said. “It's a two day journey for her. I don't know if she can make it back for two days if they don't let her in here.”

When Trump was elected, “I took solace in the fact I'm a citizen,” he explained, “that at least I'm okay, even though I want to fight against injustice for everyone else. But right now I don't feel okay,” he said, tearing up. Security officials at the airport were giving him “conflicting answers” about the fate of his ailing grandmother.

Later Saturday, federal Judge Ann Donnelly of the Eastern District of New York granted a stay at an emergency hearing that prevented the government from deporting those detained in airports. The order appears to have allowed the medical student to reunite with his grandmother. “Hey, my grandma made it finally! Took her 10 hours,” he emailed me around 2 a.m. “They gave no reason, around 1 am people were starting to be released.”

The two had missed their connecting flight and would need to find a hotel.But even with their hours of needless suffering they were on the lucky end of the spectrum. Other elderly women with green cards will not be able to fly from Iran to visit their grandsons tomorrow. Still others will be kept thousands of miles away from spouses or children. The Trump administration would have us believe that outcome is dictated by a policy that is necessary to protect the United States of America. There is, however, no rational need for an executive order as sweeping and punitive as the one they’ve pushed. And their order is already causing many U.S. citizens to suffer.

If you’re affected, if you oppose this policy, or if you favor it, email with your stories. If you’re a Republican who believes that immigrants who “wait their turn” and “follow the rules” deserve to be welcomed, but you haven’t spoken out, why not?