Campaign: Global Citizen News

​We Are All Immigrants


By Flynn Coleman, international human rights lawyer and social innovator

Right after the Administration issued its first executive order called “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” I was in the Venezia Santa Lucia open-air station waiting for my train to arrive. A young Italian boy was playing a community piano, as his mother looked on with pride, and a few of us gathered to listen. As he finished the set, we clapped, and he shyly got up to leave. Then a woman speaking Arabic approached him and tapped his shoulder. They did not speak a common language, so I walked over and helped translate.

“I’m a singer. You play, I sing?” She asked. He nodded and smiled. “Do you know 'Hallelujah'?” “Yes.” He sat back down.

As he played, the woman’s voice began to echo through the halls.

Baby I've been here before

I've seen this room and I've walked this floor (you know)

I used to live alone before I knew you

And I've seen your flag on the marble arch

And love is not a victory march

It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

An East Asian couple with clearly trained voices joined in, and soon we were all singing together. I thought, this is the world I want to live in. This is the world that is out there, that is possible, if we work together.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

The initial U.S. travel ban was issued on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and stories immediately began to circulate about Jewish refugees who had been turned away from the U.S. during World War II. As a global community, we are now experiencing a refugee crisis more severe than WWII, with over 65 million displaced persons in the world. During that war, Anne Frank’s diaries showed us the horrors of hate and the resilience of courage. Today her equivalent would be a Syrian girl.

I am an international human rights lawyer, and upon hearing about the ban, I immediately began to help organizing lawyers and translators at airports across the country. It was a terrifying situation for all those affected, and also a moment of deep pride for my fellow attorneys, many of whom would go on to spend days at offices, courthouses, protests, and airports across the country and the globe, trying to help those arriving from the list of banned countries. Meanwhile, passionate protesters, translators, civil rights activists, and others were fighting the ban in their own ways.

That weekend, a stay was ordered by a judge at my neighborhood courthouse in Brooklyn. In an overwhelming display of support for its efforts to fight the ban, the ACLU received $24 million in a weekend (they normally receive $3-$4 million a year). And soon afterward the 9th Circuit issued their decision preventing the ban’s enforcement in the short term, a beautiful rendition of the rule of law. People who are not normally focused on the judiciary have become riveted in the wake of the executive order, and my attorney peers and I have been fielding daily questions on constitutional, refugee, and immigration law, and what may happen next.

“Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life.” ~JFK

When I flew home to JFK, a tall man in front of me in the U.S. Citizens line at Customs, wielding his U.S. passport, was pulled aside by border patrol agents for questioning, despite my attempts to step in and argue to the agents that there was no basis for doing so. He returned eventually and I asked him what happened. He said, “I was not surprised.” He was an American, who happened to have been born in Sub-Saharan Africa. We both knew why he had been detained.

It's inarguable that this executive order and the Administration’s general embrace of xenophobic and racist rhetoric has created a fearful and destabilizing atmosphere, for both citizens and those seeking to enter the country, that is unlike anything the U.S. has known in recent years. The airport in my home country felt not only uninviting but also terrifying for many. There were doctors unable to get back to their patients (thousands of Americans could lose access to doctors under this ban), families separated, an Academy Awards hopeful (and eventual winner) whose visa was in doubt and did not attend, a NASA engineer who was detained until he unlocked his phone for CBP, and an ill and elderly woman who died after she was turned away.

“…no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land.” ~Warsan Shire

I've worked with refugees and immigrants for years — at the UN Refugee Agency in Geneva, during law school representing an asylum seeker escaping violence in his home country, and through pro bono legal work representing those fleeing abuse. I've worked with survivors of atrocity and war crimes, learning from their immense courage, bravery, resilience, and love. I stand with the many generations of immigrants who built my country, who make it beautiful, who came here in search of freedom and a better life in exchange for a lifetime of hard work, including my own family, who came here several generations ago, and who were welcomed.

"I'd like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free and wanted other people to be also free." ~Rosa Parks

The travel ban policies attempt to hide their intent behind language suggesting the ban is meant to prevent terrorism, which it will not. It is clear from the language that has been used by its proponents, even before the election, that the executive order is Islamophobic in nature. And the amended ban is only a modestly revised version of the first EO, removing Iraq from the list of banned countries, halting a categorical ban on Syrian refugees, and excluding those with green cards and visas from the ban. Most of the legal reasoning of the ban remains intact and discriminatory.

Many have already spoken out against this revised ban; lawyers have come together to fight its discrimination, and 134 top foreign policy experts, including Secretary Madeleine Albright, Secretary John Kerry, and my friend and fellow Luce Scholar, Ambassador Dan Feldman, have signed a letter denouncing the revised travel ban as detrimental to U.S. interests and damaging to our national security and global leadership role. And a federal judge in Hawaii has just blocked the second ban nationwide.

Not discriminating based on faith is woven into the very fabric of this country. We are built on equality, dignity, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and freedom, including freedom of religion. This is foundational to the highest ideals of this nation. When we break this oath to each other, our nation’s values begin to crumble.

In discussing how we want our representatives in government to shape policy regarding immigrants and refugees, we need to take a hard look at the history of this great nation and what it means to "belong" here. We need to acknowledge that our county was built in large part on immigration, and that the reasons immigrants and refugees seek to come here now are no different from or less valid than the reasons they have been coming since the first immigrants arrived at Ellis Island.

We also need to talk about fear and about what we are truly afraid of. For those who support harsh restrictions on immigration based on an argument that keeping immigrants out means more jobs for Americans, we need to engage with the evidence that immigration is actually good for our economy. We also need less fear mongering and villainizing of those seeking refuge here, and more attention to how jobs can be brought back to the parts of the country that are suffering economically, including through innovation and investment by private companies, and better education and training programs. Speaking of innovation, take a look at a partial list of U.S. tech companies founded by first or second generation immigrants.

The immigrants and refugees you see in this country today are the next generations of every single American who is not a Native American. It’s only a temporal difference. Irish, Roman-Catholics, Russians, Poles, Jews, all of the ethnicities of my heritage, have all been discriminated against, turned away, and have made this country a better place. We were all immigrants, refugees, strangers of this land once, until this country said, you are welcome here.

If we truly care about keeping our country safe while protecting the ideals it was founded on, we need to look at what works. Canada has opened its doors to immigrants, and not just on a governmental level. And Canada is seeing more and more people pouring into its borders, including those who have lived in the U.S. for years and are afraid of the new policies. Homeland Security has been told to round up people without papers, and people are panicked and bracing for potential assaults on DACA and Sanctuary Cities as well. Is this our country? People have come together from all walks of life in Canada to sponsor immigrants and refugees. Take a look at how successful that has been, how they speak about people coming to find a safe home in their country, and follow their example. And then read about how we can focus on truly fighting and defeating terrorism in all of its insidious and evil forms.

Then read a story about a Jewish and a Muslim family, who met by happenstance at an airport protest in support of immigrants and refugees. Read about what happened after their children looked at each other as they held signs in support of their neighbors, and then what happened when they shared a meal together.

Once I arrived back home, I walked along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, where the sun was setting behind the Statue of Liberty. I looked out across the water and thought about the millions who passed through Ellis Island to get here, including the very first three, who were children. I thought about those who were accepted, and those who were turned away, and the fact that each one of them has a story and a voice that deserves to be heard.


Flynn is an international human rights attorney, an author, a public speaker, a social entrepreneur and innovator, an educator, and a founder and CEO. Flynn speaks five languages, and has worked the United Nations, the U.S. government, and international corporations and human rights organizations around the world. She has spoken, taught, and written extensively on issues of economic development, political reconciliation, war crimes, human and civil rights, innovation in social impact, and improving access to justice and education.

Learn more:

Twitter: @flynncoleman

Instagram: @flynncoleman

Support organizations that help immigrants and refugees:

White Helmets

Karam Foundation

Save the Children

National Immigration Law Center

International Refugee Committee

The International Refugee Assistance Project

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