I am not American, and neither is my roommate. Connected by our shared name, Rachel, we are two international students from Singapore and Lebanon. The night of the vigil outside Sterling, we started at the fringe but wiggled our way through gaps in the crowd, finally finding a spot in the Berkeley courtyard. As we listened to the speakers, I found myself feeling more alone than usual in a crowd supposedly gathered to show support for the people these orders directly threaten. I cannot reproduce verbatim the speeches that I heard and will not try. However, I do recall the assertion that the order’s discrimination based on citizenship, race, and a fundamental rejection of refugees was not American, was not who “we are.”
Because the vigil was advertised as a rebuke of the decision of a President whose campaign slogan was, “Make America Great Again,” the absence of an acknowledgement of American history was jarring. Did no one remember the Chinese Exclusion Act that existed as American law from 1882 until 1943? Or Angel Island and its immigrant detention center in the early 20th century? Or the family detention centers that still line this country’s southern border? Are these all not America? I felt like I had no place standing in the crowd. The vigil was titled “Candlelight Vigil in Support of Immigrant and Refugee Communities,” yet the night’s speeches spoke more to Americans than to the international communities directly affected. Instead of joining in support of the immigrants and refugees whose lives were endangered by Trump’s order, it seemed the gathering was actually meant to salvage an ideal of America.
Throughout the night, we heard assertions of American excellence from numerous speakers describing an America that was kind, compassionate, and welcoming—a nation hardly recognizable today. We heard a man proudly share the story of a Muslim family of refugees finding refuge in an American synagogue. I heard cheers. But I could not cheer along.
As the speeches ended, I noticed that I had missed two calls from my roommate’s mother. Rachel and I had been working together for the entirety of that Sunday. She had not checked her phone. On any other Sunday, there would have been no reason for her mother’s anxiety.
When we later talked about the ban, Rachel told me about her anxiety being from an Arab country that is often perceived by Americans in a similar light as the countries targeted by the ban. Yet she is quick to tell me that she is still lucky. Lebanon is not on the list of countries affected by the ban. She is here—in America, at Yale—by choice. If she had to leave, she would have an entire life waiting for her back in Lebanon.
As an international student from Singapore, I cannot claim to understand what it feels like to be directly affected by the ban. But to me, the vigil was alienating. It felt less like a gathering for immigrants and refugees and more like one for liberal Americans mourning a particular vision of their country.
But this is not a critique of those who gathered and spoke at the vigil. It is heartening that so many would take the time to stand in solidarity. I am scared to share this opinion on a public platform, and I imagine that it must have taken much courage for every speaker to share their stories on that day, too. Their voices and opinions are important—their visions for what America could someday stand for make me grateful to remain in this country. But this ban poses a threat beyond just the question of what America represents.
To all who spoke and who were present, I thank you for the reminder that people want to make a difference. But I believe that we all can do better. We all need to recognize this country’s past transgressions, and we need to admit to ourselves that sometimes the actions of this country are nothing but shameful. We may prefer to let ourselves believe that this is not America, but it is.