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Send her back! Send him back!

Send her back! Send him back!

Send her back! Send him back! 

Question:  Does this exclamatory statement present a suppression of light and passion when based upon a belief that all appear to agree with?

William Nairn. 

Jane Nairn. 

Eva Kor. 

Rachmiel “Mickey” Kor. 

Walter Sommers.

Melanija Knavs. 

IIhan Omar. 

Coal miner. 

Housewife. 

Realtor, mother, housewife and human rights champion. 

Pharmacist and American soldier. 

Businessman and American soldier.

Fashion model and First Lady of the United States. 

Educator, campaign manager, coordinator for child nutrition outreach, Minnesota state legislator, and Congresswoman from Minnesota.

All of the listed individuals were immigrants and every single one of them followed the path of legal United States citizenship in order to become naturalized citizens of the United States of America.  This is not a simple or short process.  All of them could have been the target of recent chanting at a political rally that I found so deeply disturbing.  One of them was.  She’s the one who wears a hijab, is Muslim, and looks a little different than everyone else in a country built from the diversity of immigration and currently facing a crisis with regard to its approach to immigrants and the diversity of religions practiced by those immigrants.  While helping someone I know study for the citizenship test, I was astounded by the amount of information they were required to learn, especially considering that it is more than most natural-born citizens are aware of or know without looking it up somewhere.  A new law in Indiana doesn’t say that students have to pass the test, but it does require them to take it in order to graduate.  Could you pass this test?

Think about it. What exactly does the path to legal United States citizenship entail and could you fulfill the expectation?

·      You must be at least 18 years old when you begin an Application for Naturalization (those under 18 do not have to apply).
·      You must have been in possession of a “Green Card” for at least 5 years.
·      You have to show that you have lived for at least 3 months in the state or district where you are applying.
·      You are required to demonstrate continuous residence in the US for at least five years immediately preceding the date of filing the paperwork.
·      You have to show that you have been physically present in the US for at least 30 months out of the 5 years immediately preceding the date you filed your paperwork.
·      You must be able to read, write, and speak basic English.
·      You must have a basic understanding of U.S. history and civics/government.
·      You must be a person of good moral character.
·      You must demonstrate an attachment to the principles and ideals of the U.S. Constitution.
·      You must be fingerprinted at some point.
·      You must be interviewed by USCIS.
·      You must take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States.
·      You must understand your rights and responsibilities as a U.S. citizen.
·      You must answer 6 of 10 civics questions correctly, but there are 100 questions from which those 10 can randomly be chosen, so study and know them all.

Let me begin with William and Jane Nairn, Scottish immigrants in the late 1800’s who left the Fifeshire region (as it was then known) for the Port of Glasgow in order to sail to America and start a new life.  They arrived in the United States, changed the spelling of their last name from Nairne to Nairn in order to appear ‘more American,’ eventually made their way to the Midwest and settled in Brazil, Indiana, where William found a job as a coal miner and Jane was, to the best of my knowledge, a housewife.  They blended in well once you got past that deep burr which was apparent to all every time one of them spoke.  They became American citizens and raised their family in an honest and humble American way.  They were my great-grandparents, and, at any given time, my great-grandmother could have been the woman to whom the recent chanting of “Send her back!” might have been directed because of her naturalized citizenship.

As I read the above list detailing what it takes to become an American citizen, I thought about a brief segment in the recent documentary about Eva Kor where she emphatically declared how important her American citizenship was to her and how she’d had to work hard for that citizenship, just like everything else in her life.  It wasn’t guaranteed to her like it is to most of us and was a source of extreme pride.   I also think about all of the tumultuous years when that giant of a woman, who I loved dearly, wasn’t the easiest or most congenial person to get along with.  At any given time, she could have been the person at whom that chanting was directed.  Yet, she took her role as an American citizen very seriously.  But, would anyone have stopped chanting long enough to think intently and consider her motivations for that seriousness?  Would they understand, or care to understand, that her desires to participate in a functioning Democracy were so deeply embedded in her soul because of experiences during the Holocaust and living under the oppression of Communism for five years afterward? 

I also think back to a conversation a few years ago with Holocaust survivor Rachmiel “Mickey Kor,” who, when I asked him about some details of his life in Latvia before being forcibly taken from his home at age 16, told me he didn’t want to “stir anything” up about that time, because he was afraid, yes afraid, that someone would take away his American citizenship and “send him back.”  Seventy years after the fact and he was still horribly afraid of losing something he treasures so much.  What reassurance was I supposed to offer this then 90-year-old man whom I adore?  Was I supposed to dismissively say, “Oh Mickey, they can’t take away your citizenship?”  How could you say something like that to a man who HAS had his rights as a citizen in his native country stripped away from him before being tortured over a period of four long years in at least three concentration camps?  Answer:  You can’t.  Instead, I said, “Mickey, I would never let that happen to you.  I would fight for you.”  Did that alleviate his deepest fears?  No.  Because whether he is a natural born or not, becoming an American citizen (and eventually an American soldier) meant everything to him then, and it remains that way today.  My heart hurt to think of him watching that political rally on television and hearing those words directed at a legal citizen, wondering if he was fearful that it could be him the crowd was turning their anger toward.

Walter Sommers, now 98, came to the United States in late 1939/early 1940 after witnessing the attacks in Germany that have come to be known as Kristallnacht, or “Night of the Broken Glass.”  During that night of anti-Semitic violence, Walter’s father, a successful merchant, saw all but one of his stores destroyed.  The remaining store, well, they were forced to sell it to a non-Jewish man, and then turn over all money from that sale to the German government.  Their rights as citizens had slowly been curtailed and would continue to be restricted as time progressed.  Walter came to this country with a quarter in his pocket, proudly recalling to me once that he’d won that quarter during their ocean passage because he triumphed in a bet with a sailor solely because he knew American geography so well.  Their family arrived here, and Sommer became Sommers, because it was more “American” sounding.  Walter found employment quickly and attempted to join the American military, but because he wasn’t a United States citizen, he wasn’t allowed to be part of this country’s military.  Everything about that point of view changed after the bombing at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  Walter was soon accepted into the United States military, where they helped him obtain citizenship, and was trained in the area of artillery because of his knowledge of trigonometry. He fought in three major battles of the Pacific during World War II.  But, would there be chanting now to “Send him back!” if he were to openly and publically disagree with the majority party in the current political climate despite his service and loyalty to this country?

Melanija Knavs, now Melania Trump, is currently the First Lady of the United States.  She was born in Yugoslavia, now Slovenia, came to the United States in 1996 and became a legal, naturalized citizen in 2006, the same year she and the President had their only child.  She has worked as a highly successful fashion model, and Goodwill Ambassador of the American Red Cross, as well as holding positions with several other children’s charities.  Obviously, she fulfilled the requirements necessary to be a naturalized United States Citizen.  I have to wonder, did the individuals who were participating in the “Send her back!” chanting, stop to consider that this scenario could apply to our First Lady by those who do not share their political opinions and what would that reaction then be?

IIhan Omar, the actual target of the “Send her back!” chanting:  Omar is Somali born, and spent four years in a Kenyan refugee camp.  She arrived in the United States in 1992, secured political asylum in 1995, and became a naturalized United States Citizen in 2000 when she was seventeen years old.  In 2016 she won a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives and in 2018 won a seat in the United States House of Representatives.  She’s living the American Dream?  Right?  A success story that Americans can and should be proud of.  Her time in office has been clouded by some controversial personal and political statements and this piece is in no way an endorsement of those words nor a statement of support for Omar.  This is, however, a testimony of my belief as to how the quest for the American Dream, when it collides and clashes with the politics of the majority can become a dangerous challenge to the “light” and hope this country symbolizes for millions of people each and every day. 

Without the differing types of “light” offered by immigrants like William and Jane Nairn, Eva and Mickey Kor, Walter Sommers, Melania Trump, and Ilhan Omar, would this country be all that it is today?  Presently, I am admittedly struggling with the “light” missing from my life by the absence of the physical presence of Eva Kor.  But her light?  It shines and it will continue to shine BECAUSE of who she was, naturalized or natural-born; Forgiveness or Anti-Forgiveness; Popular political opinions or not so popular political opinions; Jewish or Christian.  It didn’t matter.  What mattered and will continue to matter was that she was taking her rights and responsibilities as a United States citizen very seriously and taking a stand for the things she believed in, whether they were popular or not, because she had the RIGHT to do so provided her by living in a nation that is a Democracy.  We often had what I consider epic and sometimes comical political discussions that were admittedly and most usually on differing sides of the aisle.  I, not surprisingly, had no problem telling her why I thought she was wrong.  But the difference is, then I listened while she told me why I was wrong or where she thought I needed to rethink something, and sometimes we could agree to disagree or we would just stick to our opinions. It wasn’t about the “convincing” part of the discussion, it was the “listening” part.   In the end, we still respected one another and it never occurred to me to tell her that maybe she should be “sent back” where she came from just because she had a differing opinion or outlook.

When we forget that people who look different, sound different, or practice a different religion that we might not understand, are still part of one world, and one nation - a DEMOCRACY, and we treat naturalized citizens as if their contributions to the “American” way of life are inconsequential because they aren’t natural-born citizens, we do these CITIZENS and their passions for change and involvement a great disservice.   Why is there an unspoken and sometimes an increasingly spoken expectation that naturalized citizens can achieve the great honor of citizenship but should then sit quietly back and do nothing while a country they have claimed as their own is in turmoil? Why has it become acceptable to be disrespectful of a fellow citizen just because their opinions do not fall into line with yours?  Have we moved so far from the practice of respectful discourse which has the power to light up and electrify a room, as to never find it again without chanting and taunting?

I finish with these last thoughts and questions:  What would have happened if Eva Kor’s amazing light - her contribution to this world - a quest for hope, healing, and humanity through personal forgiveness - had been reduced to nothing significant simply because she was a controversial naturalized citizen?  Would her light be as bright as it is today?  Would it ever have been allowed to shine?  Probably not, and that would have been a travesty of darkness for every one of us who participated in her journey.

Written by Beth Nairn

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