There are many reasons to be concerned about the Executive Order issued by US President Donald Trump on Friday afternoon, suspending all refugee immigration for 120 days and specifically barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Africa from entering the United States.
The ban, which went into effect immediately, has already caused enormous confusion and despair. Hundreds have been stranded at airports around the world and thousands more are left in uncertainty. The growing number of those denied entry to the US includes students with valid US visas, academic researchers en route to their workplaces and conferences, and even several people who have risked their lives working as interpreters for US forces in Iraq. The people affected are as diverse as they can be, yet they share one thing in common: they pose no threat whatsoever to America’s security.
What worries me the most is that the President’s order breaks with well-established US humanitarian policy – and international law. Opening her door to “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, has made America great for more than 240 years. If life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have been the engines that power the American Dream, immigration has been its fuel. And many among the tens of millions who have arrived at American shores in hope for a better life were refugees who lost everything – from European Jews escaping persecution in Nazi Germany to Vietnamese boat people hoping to start a better life after the end of the war that ravaged their country.
To them, the US stood and continues to stand for a life free from oppression and fear, a haven of freedom and opportunity, regardless of the colour of their skin or their religious beliefs. Just imagine how many of today’s truly American success stories are refugees’ stories. Albert Einstein and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin and artist Wyclef Jean stand for millions of others whose ethnicity or beliefs didn’t matter. What mattered was that they needed a compassionate welcome and a fresh start.
I fear that Friday’s order has set a dangerous precedent for the systematic exclusion of those who come full of hope and with the best intentions. And I’m reminded of the darker chapters of US history, like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or the ineffable internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II – racist policies that caused untold suffering. “The necessary, decisive battle against terrorism does not justify a general suspicion against people of a certain origin or a certain religion,” said the spokesperson of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and I agree wholeheartedly.
And praise to America’s northern neighbour whose Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote earlier that “Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.” I haven’t given up hope that Congress, across the aisle, will come to the same conclusion.
In the meantime, I applaud the thousands who have taken to the streets and the airwaves in solidarity across the US; the hundreds of lawyers camping out at airports and donating their time to fight the good fight on behalf of those caught up in this mess; the brave federal judges who have shown that checks and balances are still in place. They all stand for a kinder, gentler and more welcoming America – the America that is admired the world over.
The Virgin family includes many companies in the US and elsewhere that are proud to employ people from all around the world, and I speak on behalf of us all in saying we stand together in valuing an open and diverse society. As George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, tweeted: “The best of America is open, courageous and compassionate. That's when we're strongest. The EO should be withdrawn.” Mary Wittenberg, CEO of Virgin Sport, also wrote to her team: “We stand for diversity – of all types. We welcome all to join us, and we are inspired by the values of our birth countries, the United States and the UK. With chaotic winds of change whipping, we will stand strong for, and on the side of, our values and people.”
Like many others, including Google’s wonderful crisis fund, I am donating to the American Civil Liberties Union and the International Rescue Committee, and would urge anyone who can afford it to donate to the causes close to their heart too.