A distant cousin last weekend returned to the United States, which she visits at least once a year. She lives in Israel, but her parents live in New York — a far from uncommon situation in the Jewish world. (After we made aliyah, my own parents, for instance, still lived in the United States.)
According to Noa’s recollection, this is how her entry at Newark Liberty International Airport went down, little more than a week after President Trump’s executive order injected chaos into the nation’s border control system: “What is the purpose of your visit?” the immigration officer asked her.
“Visiting family,” she said.
“Your family lives here?”
“No! My parents have a green card.”
“Isn’t it odd that they live here and you live in Israel?”
“No. My dad works here.”
“It’s odd. Very odd.”
And with that, the immigration officer let Noa in.
Compared to what refugees and visa-holders from the Muslim world have experienced since Jan. 27, my cousin’s New Jersey encounter isn’t even a blip on a radar screen. And no disrespect to the men and women in blue charged with being the front-line defense at our nation’s airport arrival halls, immigration officers were known way before the Trump era to be less than effusively hospitable to arriving passengers, whether U.S. citizens, residents or visitors.
Take the exchange that my wife had years ago with a Customs and Border Protection official when we flew back to the states from Curacao through Miami: She held a green card at the time — she’s now a citizen — and the officer asked her where she was from.
“Canada,” she answered.
“Your English is very good,” he said. “Where did you learn that?”
Hardly believing the question, my wife answered slowly, “Canada.”
In the grand scheme of things, temporary bans on entry by specific persons might not be all that bad, given that we’ve limped along with a system that, as reliant as it is on human performance, has probably been less than perfect. At least that’s what the White House wants us to believe.
On the other hand, when the stakes have been high, America’s embrace of immigrants — or its refusal to welcome them — has often meant life and death, not to the inhabitants of U.S. cities and towns, but to the immigrants themselves. At least that’s what our community’s experience in the lead-up to the Holocaust taught us.
Maybe that’s why, in the wisdom seemingly known only to the Founding Fathers, our Constitution has guaranteed three very powerful branches of government to act as counterweights to the heavy-handed proclivities of either one of them.
And that is exactly what we’re seeing play out at this very moment: a living, breathing constitutional process of checks and balances that will either ultimately endorse the president’s setting of immigration policy by fiat or, in the alternative, relegate his executive order to the dustbin of history.
To be sure, there are very good arguments to justify either outcome, as there are a multitude of views in our own community as to what should become of how this nation treats visitors hailing from failed or failing states in a region breeding an especially potent form of anti-Western Islamic terrorism.
The debate pits concerns over religious-based discrimination against fears for public safety, the sovereign right of countries to protect their borders against an implied duty of all nations to protect those fleeing war zones and near-certain death.
In the background, of course, are the other immigration-related concerns of job growth, wage stagnation, economic productivity, national character and — for some in this country, at least — good, old-fashioned racism.
Taken as a whole, these and other issues must be weighed by the judicial system, starting with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that on Tuesday heard oral arguments over a federal judge’s Feb. 3 temporary restraining order. It will likely go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. By virtue of just how constitutional this process is, anything less would be, in a manner of speaking, distinctly un-American.
Maybe we all should keep that in mind, because when it comes to the ultimate protector of our rights, it’s not a border guard and it’s not the president, but rather the courts to whom justice is the yardstick by which decisions are measured.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached @[email protected]