Dan Rodricks

In Trump crackdown on immigrants and refugees, America loses its way

We are squandering a beautiful inheritance that Americans accepted with pride and preserved for generations — our reputation as a country that can be as humane and as decent as it is powerful and prosperous.

When the Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with the Trump administration in its feverish efforts to close the door on asylum seekers from Central America, the decision pushed us closer to final divorce from our ancestors who persevered through the Great Depression, defeated fascism and helped other nations rebuild after World War II.


Americans of the 20th Century — our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, many of them immigrants — saw this country as a beacon of hope and freedom. They embraced the ideals of a liberal democracy, a sense of fairness and justice, and the spirit of compassion and generosity.

But when the Supreme Court allowed the Trump administration to institute a harsh rule that will render thousands of traumatized people ineligible for asylum here, it felt like our lineage to the Greatest Generation had been cut.


“It is especially concerning,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her dissent, “that the rule the Government promulgated topples decades of settled asylum practices and affects some of the most vulnerable people in the Western Hemisphere — without affording the public a chance to weigh in.”

Sotomayor was specific about how the rule, which requires migrants to seek (and be refused) asylum elsewhere before they request it here, is poorly reasoned, arbitrary and capricious. The Trump administration knows full well that the change will likely endanger lives, yet it zealously pursues its implementation, without good reason.

“It abandons our values as a nation and our obligations, under both domestic and international law, to offer protection to asylum seekers with a well-founded fear of persecution,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

There have been several points during this presidency when I heard or read people remark that they no longer recognized their country. And yet, these were informed citizens who readily acknowledge that American history comes with plenty of racism, anti-semitism, bloody violence, heavy-handed government, corporate and political corruption, and many bad decisions that resulted in the loss of thousands of lives. The Greatest Generation has been inflated with sentimentality; the nostalgia for a more precious, more civilized time in America overlooks a lot of ugliness.

But our ancestors from the 20th Century left us an inheritance, and not just cash and assets. It was the brilliant promise of American ideals. The Greatest Generation elected Franklin Roosevelt four times, essentially endorsing the New Deal and, later, the imperative of waging war and making sacrifices on behalf of others. The Marshall Plan after World War II is widely hailed as an extraordinary act of generosity. Americans eager to get on with life, the generation that created the baby boom, gave between three and five percent of gross domestic product to help Europe rebuild. “In all the history of the world, we are the first great nation to feed and support the conquered,” President Harry Truman said in 1948.

Our history since then is a mixture of good and bad, great and horrible. But through most of it, as the torch was passed to new generations, we clung to some basic principles — things like the common good and common purpose, the rule of law, vigilant citizenship, public service, compassion for the needy, the goals of racial equality and expanding prosperity, and a fundamental understanding that we are a nation of immigrants and their descendants.

Americans still like to think of our country as that beacon of freedom and hope, a champion of what’s moral and right. But I look at the current government’s fixation on migrants from Central America, and the obsession with stopping even their legal efforts to enter the United States, and that’s when I feel the most dread — that we have lost our way, that we have leadership that neither understands nor respects our legacy. That’s when I feel we are squandering our inheritance.

When the president essentially closes the door on refugees from war and natural disaster, when his administration creates a test to make the poor and the disabled unworthy of residency in our country, when we treat those who seek relief in our rich nation as a criminal class, when the president refers to them as an “invasion” of “animals,” and when the Supreme Court says it’s OK to invent a new rule that erases our obligation to asylum seekers — that’s when the America I have believed in becomes almost unrecognizable.


“It is deeply disturbing to think that, by the stroke of a pen, the president can make a decision that will destroy a legacy of welcome that has been centuries in the making,” said Vignarajah of LIRS.

I do not believe in open borders, but I also understand that desperate people seek our help; they have done so throughout our history. I understand that the law must prevail, but I can’t trust that a president who demonizes immigrants will “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Rather, the law has been twisted, and the full force of the federal government brought to bear, to stop helpless people from seeking sanctuary and better lives in our country. And so a new American legacy has emerged. We appear to have reached the border, and we are about to cross into a country as cruel and as selfish as it is powerful and prosperous.