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Juan Williams: My immigrant story

Raffi, my youngest child, wore his grandfather’s watch on his wedding day.

The classic with a sepia-toned dial symbolized the idea that, even as time passes, family bonds of love endure.

So what a painful contrast to my moment of joy a week ago to now see families being torn apart on the southern border.

How could an American president intentionally separate children from parents — break up families — as a new policy to deter immigrants from coming to the USA?

I understand that Trump plays politics with immigrants. He has even proposed cutting legal immigration in half. And he displayed indifference to family bonds when he proposed ending the family reunification standard that has been the hallmark of American immigration.

Last year, he went after immigrant children when he tore up the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that allows youngsters brought here illegally — but who grew up in America, attended school here and even served in the U.S. military — to legally remain here.

This is being done by a president who recently described immigrants coming to America as an “infestation”? Of course, he began his run for president by demonizing Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals.

Well, Mr. Trump, let me tell you a great American story: I came to this country as a child immigrant.

My mother left Panama in 1958 after it became clear to her and my dad that the rule of dictator Arnulfo Arias had narrowed the doors of education and economic opportunity for my sister, my brother and for me.

My mom was nearly 50 when she left behind everything she knew to give her kids a chance at a better life. She did not want us growing up amid the gut-wrenching poverty, anti-black bigotry and the violence that was festering in our hometown of Colon.

My dad stayed behind as she took the children — then aged 4, 11 and 14 — to America as added cargo on a banana boat bound for New York. Yes, a banana boat.  

Fast-forward 60 years to last weekend’s wedding.

My brother, sister, and I are now the elders in three blessed, successful families.

When I say we are successful, I am saying we have earned our way as Americans.

My mom worked for minimum wage in a sweat shop in lower Manhattan to support us.

But that immigrant with the fourth grade education lived to see her daughter get a doctorate from Harvard. She saw my brother get his law degree from New York University. She read my writing in The Washington Post and The Hill, and watched me do political commentary on Fox News Channel. She even took a trip with me to a rural Virginia factory to watch as one of my best-selling books rolled off the presses.

None of this would have been possible had a demagogue like Trump been president. Imagine if President Eisenhower talked about “shithole” countries and separated me from my mother as our family sacrificed to become part of the great American story.  

Former First Lady Laura Bush understands:

“I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel,” she wrote in the Washington Post. “It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.”

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) understands the deep bonds of family under attack by Trump.

“As an immigrant, I know the magnetic power of America's greatness… As an American, I know that kids shouldn't be pawns while the ‘adults’ figure it out,” Schwarzenegger tweeted.

Other Republicans, however, are in the grips of Trump’s anti-immigrant mania.

Ann Coulter said crying children were “child actors.”

Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski dismissed a story about a child with Down’s Syndrome being separated from his parents by making a mocking sound: “Womp, Womp.”

At rallies, Trump compares refugees to poisonous snakes that will eventually kill anyone that takes them into a home. And he highlights any criminal act by an immigrant as if immigrants have a higher rate of criminal activity than native-born Americans. That is just another Trump lie. But it is damaging to real people trying to join the American family.

Trump at first said breaking families apart was a deterrent to illegal immigrants. When statistics showed that was not true, he said it was up to Congress to change the law. But when he signed an executive order ending his family separation policy, that was revealed to be another lie.

At no point did Trump act out of concern for families and children.

He reversed himself only after a CBS News Poll found 67 percent of Americans said it was unacceptable to cut children away from their parents. Even 39 percent of self-described Republicans said it was unacceptable — along with 90 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of independent voters.

“It is fitting that President Trump has been forced into retreat by babies. Cruelty should never be mistaken for strength,” Karen Tumulty wrote in the Washington Post.

My family came here as legal immigrants. But illegal immigrant children are the most vulnerable. And now Trump reduces them to collateral damage as he attempts to force Congress to give him money for a symbolic border wall.

The facts show the wall is all about politics because most illegal immigrants overstay visas and most illegal drugs come through legal ports of entry.

Raffi and his bride Morgan’s wedding was a celebration of the strength of family bonds and children yet to be born. That is America the beautiful.

But in the same week, our country lost the moral high ground that once allowed President Reagan to single us out to the world as the “shining city on the hill.”

Mr. Trump, have you no heart?

Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.

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