The United States has always touted itself as a nation of immigrants, and it should, as its long, storied history of newcomers has helped to construct the complex mosaic of identities that is the true foundation of the American spirit. As with any facet of a national identity that is unique or potentially politically useful, however, our “nation of immigrants” character has been repackaged and manipulated many times over the centuries. And now, in the aftermath of a horrific mass shooting committed by an American against other Americans, this national identity has yet again found itself warped, weaponized in a political climate, meant to incite the deep-seated fear that has proven time and time again to be the best way to ensure electoral support.
Never mind that the Orlando shooter, who was born in Queens, New York, shares a birthplace with Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee who claimed yesterday that Omar Mateen was “born in Afghan.” Never mind that not a single Syrian refugee who has been resettled in the United States has been found to be involved in the planning or carrying out of even one credible terrorist attack in the United States. Forget that American law enforcement cites homegrown right-wing extremism as a greater threat to American safety than Islamic terrorism. Trump, and lawmakers and media who would prefer to cower behind their cries of the dangers of the “radical Islamist” and I-told-you-so’s, are building us a new national identity, and it is constructed out of hatred and fear.
The shootings in Orlando represent the convergence of disenfranchisement and a reckless lack of gun control. When we legislate exclusion, we validate the message of ISIS and we push the already-unstable into the arms of terrorists. Somehow, Donald Trump and those who are complicit in perpetuating his message through their presidential endorsements and support, have made a broad enough brush to paint all Muslims, adherents to the second largest religion in the world, as terrorists at worst, and responsible for failing to recognize mass murderers at best. Why are we surprised that horrific violence is the result when we push the already-marginalized down and to the fringes, and then put assault rifles in their hands?
Orlando was an anti-LGBTQ hate crime in its purest form, and it has the chilling potential to pit two subjugated groups against one another. Many prominent lawmakers are quick to condemn Islam, but are unwilling to acknowledge their own role in perpetuating a climate of violence against LGBTQ people. This condemnation comes in tandem with an immediate interest in detaching the American identity from perpetrators of violence, even to the point of being objectively incorrect. To the media, Omar Mateen became an Afghan and an immigrant once he committed mass murder, even though he is just as American as Donald Trump.
We consume mass shootings in the United States in an episodic fashion according to a reliable cycle – confusion, media frenzy, fear, condemnation by public figures, hashtags, and vigils, until the next tragedy happens and the cycle restarts. It has become unfortunately predictable because our culture continues in its complicity. We continue to legislate disenfranchisement – that of the LGBTQ community, of Muslims, of immigrants – and then we insist that something else is the problem.
More than anything, as immigration attorneys, we look to advocate for the rights of the disenfranchised, and many of our clients find themselves looking for refuge in a nation that is continually being conditioned to fear them. If we want to stop the maddening cycle of mass murder, we need to do the American thing, the thing that has historically set us apart in the international community. We need to stop the marginalization of those we do not know or understand, and restore the universally welcoming and inclusive part of our national identity that has, of late, been swallowed by fear.