In 1925, after three weeks spent in steerage on the USS America and three years spent in a German refugee camp, a seven-year old Jewish boy named Benjamin Karasik stepped foot on the island of Manhattan. He and his family had fled from the horrors of the Russian Civil War, and now they arrived in America speaking no English and with only meager savings. Twenty-five years later, Captain Benjamin Karasik was commissioned as a doctor during the Korean War. And in a few short months, decades after passing under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, Grandpa Ben will celebrate his 99th birthday surrounded by his friends and family.
Grandpa Ben was one of the lucky ones; by extension, I am one of the lucky ones as well, as are both of my sisters, my mother and all my cousins. My family flourished and continues to flourish by the grace of America. It would have been so easy, back in 1925, to turn away the Karasik family, to send them back across the Atlantic to a continent on the brink of collapse. There were certainly plenty of reasons to do so. Jews were blamed for all sorts of global troubles, from the scourge of communist revolution to unspeakable acts of terror in the form of the blood libel. Indeed, even a decade later, as the specter of Nazism rose and the repressive Nuremberg laws came into force in Germany, a majority of Americans still believed that the Jews were at least partially responsible for their own persecution.
I would like to think we have come a long way as a nation since the days of the MS St. Louis. And yet, last Friday, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Donald J. Trump enacted a sweeping immigration ban targeting seven Muslim-majority nations. The hardest-hit of that group is Syria, from which all immigration has been suspended indefinitely. Refugees from the civil war in that country — who had undergone our rigorous two-year vetting process and were expecting to be resettled in the coming days — have been turned away by airlines or detained in American airports upon arrival. Some have even been sent back to their point of departure by American authorities.
At JFK International Airport, it was only after a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union and personal intervention by Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) that Hameed Darweesh, an Iraqi who had risked his life to serve as a translator for the U.S. military, was released from detention. Reportedly, one other translator and at least a dozen other refugees remain in custody at JFK. People in airports across the country are in similar situations. At my home airport, Washington-Dulles, customs officers have refused to abide by lawful court orders, preventing both attorneys and members of congress from seeing or offering counsel to detainees.
President Trump’s executive order is so fraught with issues that it is hard to know where to begin. It is a logistical nightmare, reportedly drafted by two presidential advisors with no input from career State and Homeland Security officials or from the White House Office of Legal Counsel. It appears to encompass, perhaps unconstitutionally, as many as 500,000 permanent legal residents originally from the listed nations. It also appears to encompass foreigners with multiple citizenships who carry a passport from the listed nation; a Canadian with Iranian citizenship, or a British citizen originally from Sudan, such as Los Angeles Lakers forward Luol Deng, may be refused entry into the United States. The haphazard nature of the executive order has left countless families, including those with permanent legal status, wondering if they will be prevented from reuniting with their loved ones. It has created grave uncertainty for the future of thousands of undergraduate and graduate students studying at American universities under educational visas.
But even if the executive order did not apply to green card holders and foreign dual citizens, it would still be tragically un-American. When my grandpa came to this country, he sailed by the words of Emma Lazarus — he and so many others epitomized the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” that Lazarus wrote of. He wasn’t working towards his Ph.D. or about to start a job at Microsoft. He was just a boy searching for opportunity in America because the old country had nothing left to offer him but persecution and death.
My grandpa didn’t go on to found Apple, like Steve Jobs (the son of a Syrian refugee). But he made his life here. He served his country in a time of war and continued to serve its citizens as a doctor for decades afterwards. He provided for his family, bringing up two children and six grandchildren with his wife Olga, all of them proud Americans working to better their lives and the lives of others. That’s the American dream right there.
But what’s important to remember is that my grandpa’s American dream didn’t begin when he took his oath of citizenship many years later. It didn’t even begin when he first arrived in New York City. No, that dream was born thousands of miles and an ocean away, when he first heard he was going to America. He was only seven and may not have known where America was or what our cities looked like. But he knew that America was a place where he could live in peace, without the fear that he would be killed simply because of the way he worshipped. He knew that America was a better place.
The huddled masses yearning to breathe free are still out there. Whether they are fleeing Russian pogroms or Syrian barrel bombs, the rise of fascism or marauding drug cartels, refugees from across the globe share in the same American dream my Grandpa Ben had. Our nation is stronger, more prosperous and more influential on the global stage when we work to turn those American dreams into American realities. With the stroke of a pen, President Trump sent those dreams tumbling backwards. This is a sad day for so many Americans. Let us not forget that we too were once strangers in this land.
Jacob Rubashkin is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. The Jacobin appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.