In 1885, a poor, uneducated 16-year-old boy arrived in our country from Germany at a time when immigrants were often looked down on by affluent Americans.
This boy was ambitious and entrepreneurial, and, despite language problems, he earned some money and then traveled up to the Klondike during the gold rush to operate a hotel that became notorious for prostitution. He prospered, and today his grandson is President Donald Trump.
After Germany became an enemy in World War I, the Trump family was embarrassed enough about its heritage that it claimed to be from Sweden instead. President Trump himself repeated this lie in his 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal.”
Yet Trump hypocritically joined the modern Know-Nothings by reportedly railing against immigrants from “shithole countries” like Haiti and those in Africa. He favored admitting white people over black people – which is just the latest incident in a four-decade record of his racial epithets and discrimination.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, I carefully reviewed Trump’s race-related history, including the 1,021 pages of legal documents from racial discrimination suits against him, and the evidence is devastating. We should be careful about tossing around the word “racist,” and any one incident can be misconstrued. But in Trump’s case, we have a consistent, 40-year pattern of insults and discrimination, and I don’t see what else we can call him but a racist.
It’s true, of course, that some African countries are in wretched shape and that some immigrants from poor countries arrive uneducated and end up, along with homegrown Americans, in dubious trades. But careful, Mr. President, given your own grandfather’s history.
More important, the toxic disparagement of immigrants tarnishes heroes like Emmanuel Mensah, 28, a New Yorker who came from the West African country of Ghana and joined the Army National Guard.
Then a couple of weeks ago, when he was back from training, a fire broke out in Mensah’s Bronx building. Mensah easily saved himself, but then rushed back into the burning building to rescue others. Three times he rushed in and out, bringing out four people.
Then Mensah dashed toward the flames again and reached the fourth floor in a desperate effort to save a fifth person. This brave soul from what Trump would describe as an s-hole country, the kind of person Trump was insulting, never made it out. Mensah’s body was found high in the building’s wreckage.
A few days ago, the Army posthumously awarded Mensah the Soldier’s Medal, its highest award for heroism outside of combat, and New York state awarded him its Medal for Valor. The citation on the state medal reads: “His courageous and selfless act in the face of unimaginable conditions are consistent with the highest traditions of uniformed service.”
Who better embodies our nation’s values? A politician with a history of racist comments who took five deferments to escape military duty in the Vietnam War, including one for heel spurs? Or a heroic Ghanaian immigrant and soldier who dies in a fire while rescuing others?
Most of us recognize that immigration is complex and that we cannot throw open our borders, but also that newcomers enrich us. That is true not only of Norwegians but also of penniless refugees from impoverished, war-torn countries, such as my father – a Polish-Armenian fleeing Eastern Europe, whose first purchase in the U.S. was a Sunday New York Times to teach himself English.
Trump once showed a willingness to be big-hearted to immigrants who break the rules: He married Melania, a Slovenian who came to the U.S. on a visitor visa and then earned money as a model before she was authorized to work, according to an investigation by The Associated Press.
If only Trump could show a similar compassion to unauthorized immigrants who don’t look like Melania. In particular, his decision to send Salvadorans back, in the face of murderous gang violence in that country, and his rejection of a bipartisan deal to protect DACA “Dreamers,” simply seem cruel.
So what can we do?
Obviously, we need to stand up to racist xenophobia even when it emanates from the White House – particularly when it emanates from the White House – and in addition, if Americans are looking for a constructive way to respond, here’s a suggestion: Donate to an immigrant rights organization like the National Immigration Law Center, or to an aid group that works with people whom our president just insulted.
I’ve seen firsthand and admired the work of two U.S. aid organizations that save lives in Haiti from tuberculosis, cervical cancer and more. They are Partners in Health and Innovating Health International. Both are working heroically on the front lines to save the lives of ordinary Haitians, particularly women.
It seems to me that a fine, practical response to racism is to help save a life.