Several years ago, one of my Project Love board members became interested in lifting inner city children out of poverty. Knowing that part of what Project Love does is work with inner city youth to develop character, values, achievement and success, he came to me to vet his proposed solution. His plan was to raise money to take inner city children away from their parents, house them in dorms, feed them, clothe them and educate them. His intentions were noble. His plan was un-American. I told him so.
I gently impressed upon my friend that—unless parents are abusing or endangering their children—the way we choose to raise our kids is a basic and essential freedom. This right is part of our core values. As he unpacked the reasons for his plan, he admitted that he was focused more on the outcome and less on the values on which our country was based.
Herein is the problem with the Trump administration and its now abandoned but initially intentional policy to separate illegal migrant children from their parents. President Trump, advisor Stephen Miller and AG Jeff Sessions were targeting the outcome and agenda, but they overstepped and totally missed our country's values along the way.
Some might ask: Which values are you referring to? Aren't safety and security values? Isn't our government obligated to protect us from the migrant “infestation?” From the “murderers, drug dealers, rapists and thieves?”
My answer is that safety and security aren’t values. They are important agendas and outcomes. So is a sound and legal immigration policy. But the values on which our country rests – those embedded in our Constitution and which emphasize the dignity of every human being — are more important. If we abandon them, by definition, we become a different country. If we travel down that slippery slope, the outcomes will be un-American. Senator Marco Rubio recently summed up this conundrum in a tweet:
“Immigration issue is hard b/c our sovereignty requires us to have borders. Our history requires us to remember we are all immigrants. Our constitution requires due process. And our Judeo-Christian values requires us to show compassion. No other nation has to balance all that.”
Countries that ignore their values easily become immersed in conflict and propaganda. Under false pretenses, the end then justifies the means. Propaganda and fear-mongering make violating values palatable. We are easily on this path. For example, the government's contention that illegals as a group are dangerous has been debunked. And it has also been fact-checked and established by many credible authorities that the murder rate perpetrated by illegal immigrants is significantly less than the murder rate among American citizens.
But this false narrative notably fits into the Trumpian agenda. Clearly, the outcome sought by the Trump administration -- corroborated by Jeff Sessions in documented TV and newspaper interviews -- was to create a noxious disincentive for illegals (even asylum seekers) to cross the border. The children became the trump card, so to speak.
But, like my friend, Trump and his lot ignored kindness, respect, doing the right thing, and basic dignity for other human beings. They may come from "shithole countries," to use the President's term, but they are human beings. Treating them like numbers, objects and someone else's problem in the process of achieving the desired outcome (decreasing illegal immigration) is un-American.
To those of you who are reading this blog, you may or may not agree with the Trump administration's politics or policies. That’s your choice. But, I'm not talking politics here. I'm talking about sticking to a process that involves doing the right thing and adhering to our shared values. Even an administration official, Ivanka Trump, tweeted last week that "... Congress must act now + find a lasting solution consistent with our shared values; the same values that so many came seeking as they endeavor to create a better life for their families."
My parents came here seeking those values. They looked upon America with awe because they saw America as representing freedom, opportunity, safety and treating people right. They came here after surviving the Holocaust and started a new life. My parents started a home remodeling company, put three sons through private colleges, gave us a middle-class life, paid taxes, employed workers, and contributed to charity and the greater good. My immigrant parents helped shape the great country that aligns with the vision of America. That’s what immigrants do: they re-make and re-shape America into something that is even better than it was before. That is America’s secret.
But our country does have an underbelly. Hatred toward immigrants is one facet of our frailty and duplicity. Many in American society referred disparagingly to my parents and other immigrants as "greenhorns." We maligned and discriminated against the Irish and other nationalities when they came over in the early 1900’s. Notwithstanding this bias, every immigrant group has contributed to America, our work ethic, our culture and our employment of other Americans.
Whenever we have deviated from our values, motivated either by hate, bias, misinformation, or outcomes and agendas, we have had embarrassing and devastating moments: racism in the interest of the cotton economy; confiscation of Native American lands in the interest of expansionism; and incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II in the interest of unfounded national security issues. There are many more examples.
One example that parallels the current immigration issue is the voyage of the St. Louis, a cruise ship that sailed in 1939 from Hamburg, Germany to Havana, Cuba, fleeing Nazi Germany. Except for 28 passengers who were admitted because they had proper citizenship or visas, 919 passengers were forced to return to Europe. Some countries admitted the refugees. But, 254 passengers died in the Holocaust.
One month before the voyage of the St. Louis, a bill in Congress would have admitted 20,000 European Jewish children, but it died in committee. America could have saved the St. Louis, and those in our government could have saved the children.
Are we the country represented on the Statue of Liberty by poet Emma Lazarus?
"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Or are we a country immersed in fear, guided by expediency or determined to do anything to get to our end-game? Ultimately, that quandary is for each of us to decide. What do we stand for? Our answers will ultimately determine what America stands for and the kind of country and people we choose it to be. Whatever we become is on us!
Muszynski is President and CEO of Values-in-Action Foundation. Purple America is Values-in-Action's national initiative to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. www.PurpleAmerica.us; www.viafdn.org