July 19, 2019

Washington Post Exclusive: Padma Lakshmi: Millions of Americans like me and Ilhan Omar are right where we belong

Padma Lakshmi is an ACLU Artist Ambassador for immigrants’ and women’s rights, and the host and an executive producer of “Top Chef.”

Wednesday night at a rally in Greenville, N.C., a sea of white faces in red hats bellowed “Send her back! Send her back!,” referring to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a Somali refugee who disagreed with the president on policy.

It was a sickening escalation from Sunday, when the president tweeted at Omar and three other congresswomen of color who were born in the United States: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” It was a longer version of the classic racist taunt “Go back to your country!” During the chanting on Wednesday, Trump watched over the crowd, seemingly satisfied. What followed, too, is now classic Trump — saying briefly that “he didn’t like it,” only to say later those very same chanters were “incredible patriots.” It’s Charlottesville 2.0. He has long been dog-whistling to white nationalists, and as he ramps up for 2020, that whistle has become a battle cry.

Those words, those hurtful, xenophobic, entitled words that I’ve heard all throughout my childhood, stabbed me right in the heart. They echoed the unshakable feeling that most brown immigrants feel. Regardless of what we do, regardless of how much we assimilate and contribute, we are never truly American enough because our names sound funny, our skin isn’t white, or our grandmothers live in a different country.

It’s hard for many white Americans to understand how hurtful the language the president used this week is to many of us.

In elementary school, we used to sing, “This land is your land, this land is my land.” But out in the playground and at the arcade, we heard another tune: that no matter how hard we worked, and even if we kept our heads down, many in our nation were never going to accept us as equally American as our white fellow citizens. They snarled and smirked as they reminded us that they could yank away our identity at will.

I came here with a single mom who built a new life for us, and I couldn’t love this country more. America would not be able to function without the waves of immigrants who have made this country what it is. We have shaped every sector of American life. Imagine American food without hamburgers and hot dogs, tacos or pad thai. But people don’t often think of who is making the takeout that they love so much.

The president is himself a second-generation American. Two of the women he has married are immigrants, but the only difference between them and Omar — and myself — is skin color. It’s clear that Trump equates being American with being white. But he doesn’t have the right to judge the Americanness of any of us.

Every morning, before I log on to Twitter, I try to take a breath and remind myself that there are still decent Republicans out there. But they need to speak up. In truth, Trump supporters are a minority. He has an approval rating of about 40 percent, and his main strategy is to latch on to white peoples’ fear of irrelevance, their perceived loss of social capital and political power — the age-old fear of the “Other.” He took disenfranchised citizens’ ire meant for bankers and Wall Street’s dubious loans and aimed it squarely at young Guatemalan families crossing the border with bare feet to seek asylum.

This president has made it his mission to dehumanize immigrant families. He instituted a Muslim ban to prevent people of the Islamic faith from visiting their relatives in this country, called to build a wall on our southern border and enacted a “zero-tolerance” family separation policy so heinous that even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) didn’t want to be associated with it.

We will not give in to Trump and the mobs at his rallies. In the words of Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who was targeted by the president, “We should not take the bait.” We must organize, starting at the local level, through grass-roots and social media efforts to tackle gerrymandering and voter ID laws, fundraise and use all of our platforms to resist this dangerous plague of ignorance.

We all want the same thing for our children: a safe place to grow and thrive. As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said: “I want to tell children across this country . . . that no matter what the president says, this country belongs to you. And it belongs to everyone.” I have news for this administration: The millions of Americans like me and Omar are right here where we belong in our country, and we aren’t going anywhere. As the song says, “This land was made for you and me.”

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