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Our Better Ban

Behold the re-launch of American ostracism

My brother went to medical school at a state-run university in Pakistan. You had to be brilliant to get in, not just really smart but brilliant in the sense of perfect to the final percentage point. The list of admitted students was published on a bulletin board outside the gates. Those who got in rejoiced, those who didn’t sometimes rioted and threatened and even beat up the others. A medical degree in the tumultuous Karachi of the 1990s was a ticket to opportunity, a route to a middle-class life. In his fourth year of medical school, my brother decided to apply to an internship in the United States. My parents had scrounged pennies so he could make the trip, the first time he would ever get on a plane. He got the internship but that was the easy part, he still needed a visa. The U.S. Consulate in Karachi no longer gave out visas and so he had to apply to Islamabad, many hundred miles away. There was no money to pay for an air ticket, and so he and his friend decided to drive a whole night and a whole day and get themselves to Islamabad. They had no money for a hotel and so they slept in their car with all their documents, transcripts from school, certificates from Boy Scouts, report cards, attestations of capabilities, affirmations of character. Morning came and they were passed through three different checkpoints, patted and searched, and bused to a place where a man in a window told each one that his visa had been denied. 

There are many stories like my brother’s and some have been told in the gasping pause between President Trump’s first executive order and the one delivered this Monday. The new order is like the old one, a document of despair; it is still called “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” the strident title still alleging that this ban on foreign nationals from these countries is crucial to the project of a safe America. Other sentences deliver indictments on the world’s most precarious, telling us that “terrorist groups have sought to infiltrate several nations through refugee programs” and that “The attorney general has reported to me that more than 300 persons who entered the United States as refugees are currently the subjects of counterterrorism investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” There are no further details regarding these mysterious people or of this alleged report made by an attorney general whose own actions are under scrutiny. Through a compendium of similar wordy paragraphs the new travel ban attempts in form and pattern, if not in content, of less malicious proclamations made by better presidents.

Newly coiffed in the language of compromise and concession, the torment of a few less people was now recast as no torment at all.

There is also a good bit of malevolence in the timing of this re-launch of American ostracism. The President has been angry all weekend, anxious anchors have told us—fuming over perceived betrayals through rounds of golf and gourmet dinners at the club he owns. The ire of the most powerful seeks out the most wanting and so it is the case here. Pulled back in from the margins where it had been relegated until the need for a new diversion, the new travel ban was signed Monday. Newly coiffed in the language of compromise and concession, the torment of a few less people was now recast as no torment at all. Iraqis were expiated, legal permanent residents deemed still legal, existing visa holders deemed provisionally acceptable; all of it covering up the continued exclusion of many millions, the cloud of collective blame over an entire faith. A frenetic media addicted to the cyclical chaos of a furious presidency waited open-mouthed to catch the bits thrown to them, nodding in limpid agreement to the mantra that a little less xenophobia is no xenophobia at all.

Malice, however, is only one dimension of the travel ban’s subtext. Indeed, myopic focus on only the ban’s legalities (and illegalities) threatens to obscure the part it plays in the moral transformation that Trump and his advisers seek to enable. The ban’s target is neither the refugee nor the visa holder but those “real” Americans who imagine their opportunities and safety abridged by them. Per this new moral math Trump and his advisers would like Americans to adopt, the immigrant and Muslim others are not simply foreign but morally inferior to those who can smugly claim belonging based on ancestry or birthright. Seeking a visa, permission to enter becomes a kind of beggary, devoid of dignity and justifying a demeaning scrutiny and differential treatment. This new travel ban, with its petty concessions, is one brick in this edifice of nativist moral superiority currently under construction. When complete, it will render the native synonymous with the good, the pure, the pristine, and the legitimate. The resonant notes of ban, security, and permission are a chord in this larger symphony that will be played loudly and often in the next four years, wearing some down, while leaving others disinterested and prejudice natural and normal.

When complete, the new American morality will render the native synonymous with the good, the pure, the pristine, and the legitimate.

In a presidency based on rage there is little room for empathy. If the executive orders instating bans on Muslim countries are visible tragedies, there are invisible ones in the fact that for most Americans, the happenings at the border, at their embassies around the world, are distant and peripheral realities requiring a stretching of their already strained sympathies. To them the hopeful and eager faces of visa applicants, students and fiancés, mothers and businessmen, all clutching huge stacks of documents, pieces of their lives, all anxiously awaiting their turn to answer questions, explain intentions, be “vetted,” are faraway abstractions. The unreality of these visa applicants is further inflected with fear when the visa applicants are Muslim, the subjects of such zealous and bipartisan demonization in the long decades since 9/11.

My brother did eventually get to the United States but if he had tried today he would have failed. On the same morning in which the new order was signed, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which holds in its regulatory clutches the fates of millions of immigrants, announced that it would suspend the premium-processing route for H1-B visa applicants. Beneath the unintelligible gook of regulatory jargon is a drastic slowdown of the stream of highly qualified workers who arrive on work visas to the United States. Until now, premium processing charged extra fees but sped up the visa approval process for highly skilled technical workers. Without it, processing will take many months and ruin many bright futures with administrative delays and bureaucratic stalling. The H1-B is the visa that allowed my brother to stay in America. As a doctor he has cared for Americans in towns in the Midwest, in cities in the south and now the southwest. Often, he has treated those who would not otherwise receive treatment, he has waited at their bedsides and he has comforted their families. Yet in this new America, where bans and blame are merely the daily staple, a new scandal, he is unwelcome, suspect, and somehow not a real American.