Wednesday, February 01, 2017

How Trump Has Taken Away Our Homes

Photo
CreditSophia Foster-Dimino
We wrote this together because we have a few things in common. Some are obvious: Both of us came to the United States as teenagers fleeing Communist regimes; both of us are queer. We are also both moved alternately to tears and to rage by the actions of the new American president. One thing that we share is less obvious: This anger and despair make both of us feel as if we are losing our home.
Masha once spent an evening in Berlin with a sociologist and a philosopher trying to define “home.” The three discussants had, among them, lived in more than half a dozen countries and counted themselves native in at least two languages each. Facts like country of birth, length of stay or mother tongue were not applicable. Other descriptors emerged: a sense of safety, a sense of familiarity, a sense of inhabiting space with certainty, a sense, indeed, of the certainty of that space — the opposite feeling of having the rug pulled out from under your feet.
President Trump has introduced fear into our households. Both of us are married to women who are not American citizens (both are Russians who carry green cards), and both of us are raising children some of whom are United States citizens and some not. Most Americans do not realize that a hierarchy of immigrant security exists. Permanent green-card holders are more secure than provisional ones; political asylum or refugee status can be canceled with the stroke of a pen; asylum applicants are the most vulnerable — thousands of people are in the country legally, awaiting an interview or a decision on their application, but their right to remain here can be snatched away for any reason. Many of these people would face violence or even death if they were forced to return to their countries. In this hierarchy, our partners and children are safer than most, but a sense of insecurity has still seeped into our homes — making them feel less like home.
Martina came to America at 18, still a high school student. She was already a world-class tennis player, though. A few months earlier, the Czechoslovak authorities had denied her permission to travel to the U.S. Open. They later reversed that decision, but the experience of powerlessness was enough to make her seek political asylum when she got to New York. The prospect of the authorities controlling her ability to compete was more frightening than the prospect of living in a strange country, far from her parents, whom she could not be certain of ever seeing again. She knew that America was the land of freedom.
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Masha knew this growing up, too. Her parents brought her to the United States when she was 14. She had never been to this country, but leaving everything she had known behind and moving to America seemed like a homecoming. Masha came from a family of writers: the freedom to write and read was the singular attraction of coming to America. For Martina, freedom of speech also figured strongly in the imagined freedom of the United States. She liked to tell jokes, and she wasn’t always great at judging her audience, so it would be good not to face political repercussions for ill-timed humor. Also, Martina had a secret that could never be disclosed in Czechoslovakia: She liked women.
As it turned out, freedom of speech in America had limitations. Immigration policies carried over from the early 20th century and enshrined in the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act dictated that “sexual deviants” be deported for reasons of “psychopathic personality.” The Immigration and Naturalization Service, which had deported dozens of people a year in the 1950s and 1960s, had stopped actively hunting down homosexuals, but an openly gay or bisexual person could still not be granted citizenship. Martina decided to keep quiet about her sexuality until she had her citizenship. She got that in 1981, but at that point the Women’s Tennis Association asked her not to come out. The women’s sport had been rocked by scandal, and sponsors were threatening to pull out. She waited (though some journalists did not).
Masha decided to challenge the homophobic Immigration and Naturalization Services when she applied for citizenship in 1989. She wrote a letter saying that she was a lesbian but considered herself not to be a “psychopathic personality.” She expected to take her case to court once she was rejected, but she was granted citizenship. The following year, the anti-gay provisions of the immigration law were finally repealed. Masha, meanwhile, celebrated her citizenship by getting arrested in a civil-disobedience action in front of the I.N.S. in New York, to protest a ban on entry to the United States for people with H.I.V.
For Martina, the road to coming out proved long. Finally, in 1993, she spoke at a gay and lesbian march on Washington. The crowd cheered. And then, everywhere she went that day, people celebrated her. You would think that a woman who had set records for the number of consecutive years at No. 1 in singles and doubles tennis would be used to the adulation of crowds. But she was not. Her game had been criticized as too muscular, her personal style as too aggressive, and the crowds almost always seemed to side with her opponent, who was almost invariably more traditionally feminine. Now, suddenly, here was the feeling she had never had on the court, a feeling she had nearly forgotten was possible. After 18 years in America, she finally felt at home.
In the end, this was the promise that had brought us here: not that we would find home immediately but that we would have the freedom to make our home here. The process necessarily included the freedom to work to change America so that it would include us and accept us, and others like us, and still others who were unlike us and who brought more change with them. This is the promise that brought more than 42 million Americans — more than 13 percent of the population — here from other countries. This is the promise now being yanked back by Mr. Trump’s suspension of the refugee program, by the ban on admitting people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, by the wall on the border with Mexico, by the xenophobic rhetoric emanating from the White House, by the idea that “America first” somehow means that everyone who is not born American is therefore excluded.
The people hit hardest by Mr. Trump’s policies are the people in need of immediate refuge. But in the slightly longer run, it is tens of millions of others who have grown up, or are growing up, with the idea that somewhere, there is a land of the free that could be their home, too. Most of them would never come to the United States, but they were made safer by its tradition of welcoming immigrants — an ideal that, though it was never honored to the fullest extent possible, remained until now central to America.
One in four people in the United States is an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. A majority of people in the country are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. If they — if we — do not continue to stand up against Mr. Trump, we will lose our home, too, even as we stay in our houses.

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