America is better than this

In Hans F. Loeser, I met more than a lawyer. I came to deeply admire a civil rights leader, a war hero, a refugee.

Now, as the Trump administration takes action to bar refugees based on their religion, turning away war heroes at the border, Hans’ story weighs heavy on my mind.

Through our conversations in 2007, and the pages of his memoir, I learned of Hans’ family’s department store in Kassel, Germany, and the increasing drumbeat (and violence) of anti-Semitism that led his parents to send him to a boarding school London in 1938.

In 1940, Hans arrived in the U.S. as a refugee and reunited with his parents, who had barely escaped Nazi Germany. Just two years later, after earning American citizenship in the midst of World War II, Hans volunteered with the U.S. Army.

Initially viewed with suspicion because of his German ancestry, Hans eventually found his way to the “Ritchie Boys,” a group of young men trained at Maryland’s Camp Ritchie to serve as intelligence officers. Chosen for their linguistic and cultural expertise, many of the Ritchie Boys were Jewish refugees from Germany.

Moving on from the intelligence role, Hans volunteered for the 82nd Airborne Division and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

Hans, a refugee to America, put his life on the line to serve America’s interest. His understanding of the world was crucial to our victory.

Later, as a lawyer, he led the firm Foley, Hoag to national prominence, including urging the firm to serve as co-counsel for plaintiffs in Boston’s school desegregation case. He even earned a spot on President Nixon’s enemies list for his protests against the Vietnam War.

As he put it, “Since the day I became a citizen in 1942, I have publicly argued with my government on issues of war, nuclear arms, and civil rights. I have cherished the right to do so, as well as our fundamental values of fairness, equity, and justice.’’

These days, Muslims around the world flee wars and terrorist attacks. Sectarian violence has seared a deep scar in the lives of Muslim families around the world. Failed countries drive women and children into the hands of human smugglers for perilous journeys.

If these refugees are fortunate enough to survive, they spend years waiting in camps as they undergo the most stringent of vetting, including multiple security clearances before ever setting foot on American soil.

And then, yes, they are volunteering and filling critical roles in our military.

Yesterday’s Hans F. Loeser is today’s Cpl. Ali J. Mohammed, an Iraqi refugee who came to the U.S. as a young man with his parents. In 2014, Mohammed enlisted into the U.S. Marine Corps, and he now serves as a translator in Iraq.

Or, any of the number of refugees who were detained in U.S. airports over the last 48 hours even though they helped American forces in Iraq, Afghanistan or beyond.

President Trump’s executive order to suspend America’s refugee system, ban Muslim refugees from seven countries and severely curtail numbers are a dramatic departure from our nation’s values. And, they do very little to improve our national security.

In fact, his actions serve to put American troops in harm’s way. What Iraqi is going to put their life on the line to help American troops if they have zero chance of escaping the wrath of their enemies?

Just as important, Trump’s effort to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border does nothing to address the real problem of drugs, guns and money smuggled through ports of entry. And his requirement of local law enforcement to take on immigration responsibilities serves to undermine their ability to serve and protect everyone in their communities.

These orders will cost the American taxpayers tens of billions of dollars and undermine who we are as a nation. There are better, smarter, ways to proceed.

Increase regional refugee processing resources so security checks occur in timely fashion. Prioritize ports of entry and lines of sight along the U.S.-Mexico border. Require the undocumented to register for legal status, pass a criminal background check and pay fines and taxes.

These options would be a good deal for the American worker. And they hew to the best of our ideals.

We do not want to return to the days of turning away refugees, returning them to violence and death. We do not want to return to days when racial and ethnic minorities were profiled and, eventually, put into separate camps. We do not want to return to a dark time when our lives were dominated by fear.

America is better when we lead with freedom, not fear. We must act with requisite caution, but also with compassion and moral clarity.

Hans, who passed away in May 2010, is no longer here to bear witness.

But I think he would agree: America’s next war hero and civil rights leader may very well be a refugee.

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