This newspaper has periodically, to its shame, succumbed to the kind of xenophobic fearmongering that President Donald Trump is now trying to make American policy.
In 1875, The Times sternly warned that too many Irish and German immigrants (like the Trumps) could “deprive Americans by birth and descent of the small share they yet retain” in New York City.
In 1941, The Times cautioned in a front-page article that European Jews desperately seeking American visas might be Nazi spies. In 1942, as Japanese-Americans were being interned, The Times cheerfully suggested that the detainees were happily undertaking an “adventure.”
We make bad decisions when we fear immigrants we “otherize.” That’s why Americans burned Irish Catholics alive, banned Chinese for decades, denied visas to Anne Frank’s family and interned Japanese-Americans. And yes, The New York Times sometimes participated in such madness.
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But we will not be part of that today.
Trump signed an executive order on Friday that suspends refugee programs and targets Muslims from certain countries. It’s hypocritical for Trump to be today’s avatar of hostility to immigrants, since his own family suffered from anti-German sentiment and pretended to be Swedish. But I’m indignant for a more personal reason – and I’m getting to that.
Kirk W. Johnson, a former American aid official in Iraq, fears that the executive order will bar military interpreters who have bled for America and to whom we have promised entry. He told me about one interpreter, nicknamed Homeboy, who ran through fire to rescue a wounded American soldier, and then was himself shot. Homeboy survived, barely, but lost his leg – and as he recovered, a grenade was thrown at his home by insurgents angry that he had helped Americans.
After years of vetting, Homeboy was approved for a visa for interpreters who helped the United States. Does Trump really want to betray such people who risked more for America than Trump himself ever did?
Yet if fear and obliviousness have led us periodically to target refugees, there’s also another thread that runs through American history. It’s reflected in the welcome received by somebody I deeply admire: Wladyslaw Krzysztofowicz. And this is personal.
Raised in what was then Romania and is now Ukraine, Krzysztofowicz was jailed by the Gestapo for assisting an anti-Nazi spy for the West. His aunt was murdered in Auschwitz for similar spying, but he was freed with a bribe. When World War II was ending, he fled his home as it fell into the hands of the Soviets.
After imprisonment in a Yugoslav concentration camp, he made it to Italy and then France, but he couldn’t get a work permit, and he thought that neither he nor any children he might later have would ever be fully accepted in France.
So he dreamed of traveling to America, which he had heard would be open to all. He explored a fake marriage to an American woman to get a visa, but that fell through. Finally he met an American woman working in Paris who convinced her family back in Portland, Oregon, to sponsor him, along with their church, the First Presbyterian Church of Portland.
As Krzysztofowicz stood on the deck of the ship Marseille, approaching New York Harbor in 1952, a white-haired woman from Boston chatted with him and quoted the famous lines from the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ….” Krzysztofowicz spoke little English and didn’t understand, so she wrote them down for him and handed him the paper, saying, “Keep it as a souvenir, young man.”
Then as she was walking away, she corrected herself: “young American.”
Krzysztofowicz kept that scrap of paper and marveled that he – a refugee who had repeatedly faced death in the Old Country for not belonging – now somehow counted as an American even before he had set foot on American soil, even before he had learned English. It was an inclusiveness that dazzled him, that kindled a love for America that he passed on to his son.
That strand of hospitality represents the best of this country. The church sponsored Krzysztofowicz even though he wasn’t a Presbyterian, even though he was Eastern European at a time when the Communist bloc posed an existential threat to America. He could have been a spy or a terrorist.
But he wasn’t. After arriving in Oregon, he decided that the name Krzysztofowicz was unworkable for Americans, so he shortened it to Kristof. He was my dad.
Recently I returned to the First Presbyterian Church to thank the congregation for taking a risk and sponsoring my father, who died in 2010. And the church, I’m delighted to say, is moving to support a refugee family this year.
Mr. President, please remember: This is a country built by refugees and immigrants, your ancestors and mine. When we bar them and vilify them, we shame our own roots.
Nicholas Kristof can be reached at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.