Sunday, November 10, 2019

What it means to be American: honoring noncitizen service members on Veterans' Day

Look for a powerful piece by Phil Klay of the N.Y. Times, "The Soliders We Leave Behind," about military interpreters and noncitizen soliders in anticipation of Veteran's Day. He connects the history of nonimmigrant service in the U.S. military with the tragedy of contemporary failures to acknowledge military service in Iraq:

America may be “a nation of immigrants,” where people of different nations and faiths forge a common identity. But that common identity has relied on far more than the notion of all people hungering for freedom in dark places. For citizens to labor and sacrifice on a nation’s behalf, they must feel what Edward Wilmot Blyden called “the poetry of politics,” that sense of inclusion in a broader community with its own distinctive character and historical consciousness.

The American problem was reconciling this with a universalistic ethic open to all people. And throughout our history, we have relied not simply on ideas but on a far more atavistic, unstable and dangerous tool: war.

Personal narratives capture the harms to immigrants of failing to recognize their sacrifice. Just as importantly, he conveys the harm to our national self-identity of neglecting to recognize immigrants seeking to serve America. In the words of Ted, an Iraqi translator whose visa application from 2008 (after serving from 2007-2010) is still stalled a decade later:

“I want to live American dreams,” he says. “To live free. Freedom and respect. That’s the American dream. And I still think I’m a Marine. I’m honored to be a Marine. I wish that I could work with the Marines one more time.” As he says this his children enter the room, and they come over and crawl over him. He smiles and laughs and adds: “I think I’ve got a chance. I did my interview. Just medical, and then I’m out of here.”

The article concludes with a sobering reflection from the author: "Given the current state of our immigration and refugee policies, it’s unlikely to be that easy. Nor is it quite clear, at a time when even those who literally risked their lives under fire for America are not allowed to come and add their skills and talents to the country, what precisely the “American dream” now means." My former student and two-tour Iraq veteran Travis Weiner is given the final word: “If people’s emotions about immigration are such that they are willing to tolerate literally leaving our wartime allies behind on the battlefield because they’re foreigners and they look different, even though they’ve done more for this country than most Americans — if that’s the case, then we really need to do a gut check about whether we really are the people we say we are.”


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