Earlier this week, I awoke from a vivid nightmare. I dreamt that my daughter had been forcibly taken by the police and incarcerated. Her crime was her failure to produce adequate documentation of her legal presence in this country; like most Americans, she doesn’t regularly carry her proof of citizenship.

I am sure my horrific vision was provoked by recent media reports of U.S. Border Patrol personnel sweeping buses and trains, demanding that passengers demonstrate they are in the country legally.

My nightmare was made especially disturbing because I know this scenario can easily become my family’s reality. We adopted our daughter when I was posted to a U.S. embassy in a former Soviet bloc country; she became a naturalized American citizen on our return to the United States. Although she has only known life in America, I worry that her dark hair and brown eyes make her a target.

The specter of American law enforcement accosting people — absent any evidence of wrongdoing other than, perhaps, looking “foreign” — and demanding to see their “papers” is deeply troubling. To me, this feels especially ironic.

As part of the assignment during which we adopted my daughter, I was tasked with assisting the host government transition from a totalitarian regime trapped behind the Iron Curtain to one that practiced the democratic norms followed in the West. The police state tactic of compelling people to produce identification without probable cause was absolutely contrary to the principles we wanted to instill in that newly freed country. It is incomprehensible that this is now considered acceptable in America.

Like many of my Georgetown classmates of the 1970s, I was the culmination of the immigrant dreams of my ancestors from the British Isles and Germany, who came to these shores seeking a new life. Our families had fled the political and religious oppression, as well as the economic hardships, of their native lands and forged a better life here in the New World.  

For instance, many of my classmates and I are descended from Irish refugees, who had been subjugated by the English, scorned for their Catholic faith and finally driven by starvation during the infamous “Potato Famine” to emigrate.  Our successes were, and remain, predicated on their successes after arriving here.

Further, the diversity of our Hoya backgrounds was something to be celebrated; it was not a source of suspicion or shame. It was not unusual to talk of how someone’s mother was Italian or Greek and father was Irish or German. This multiculturalism made us Americans.

I am not so naive as to believe that the American immigrant experience does not have a dark side. The manner in which we have treated and continue to treat those who followed our ancestors here is not without blemishes.

One branch of my family was confronted by signs proclaiming “No Irish Need Apply” when seeking employment. As recently as World War II, one of my grandfathers would have his car tires slashed because of his German surname. Hate crimes against Hispanics and Muslims continue this tradition.   

During my many years as a U.S. foreign service officer, I carried a Consular Commission: a government-issued document asserting my nomination as an Consular Officer in a foreign country. I read and carried out my official duties in accordance with the Immigration and Nationality Act, providing me a deep understanding of the statute, as well as its sordid background. The title of a predecessor statute, the “Chinese Exclusion Act,” speaks for itself.

The current statute is based on the principle of “family reunification,” meaning priority is given to the relatives of those already living here. The practical effect of this is to encourage immigration from white, European nations and discourage those seeking to come from other regions. For instance, as African slaves were transported here as property, there are no vital documents to support petitions for immigration; they only existed as numbered entries on “bills of lading.”

To those of us who served in Eastern Europe after that wall came down, the notion that we would build a similar structure on our borders is bewildering. The stated rationale of the communist dictatorships who erected that infamous barrier was exactly the same as that heard today — to keep out the “undesirables” who threatened the majority’s way of life. The communist government called it the “anti-fascist protection rampart” and said it was intended to defend against “fascist elements conspiring to prevent the will of the people in building a socialist state in East Germany.” One wonders how President Ronald Reagan, who once admonished his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down this wall!” would react if he were alive today.

Rhetoric excoriating today’s refugees and immigrants fleeing the violence and poverty of their homelands and depicting them as rapists and terrorists is profoundly anti-American. It is an explicit repudiation of the principles upon which this nation was based. Rather than learning from and moving beyond our mistakes of the past, some appear to be embracing and reinvigorating these evils. We can and should be better than this. We need to recognize that our lives are based on America “opening its doors” to our families. We should do no less for those who wish to come today.

Raymond W. Dillon Jr. graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1977. A Hoya Looks Back appears online every other Tuesday.

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