We are about to say goodbye to a president who conquered the highest office in America even though his father was not only foreign-born, but also black. It was a rare achievement for a country so divided between liberals and conservatives, the desperate and the misinformed. It was good to know that during the past eight years, a loving family occupied the White House. Barack Obama was a rare politician: sincerely trying his best to keep us safe, content with his salary check, and in love with his wife. He valiantly struggled with the country’s thorny problems: immigration, healthcare, economic inequality, and climate change. None of these are easy to resolve or necessarily of America’s making, rather a byproduct of modern life—but America’s legendary kindness, generosity and resourcefulness could, and sometimes did under President Obama, alleviate their impact.
Personally I am most familiar with immigration. As readers of Branching know, as a child I was caught in one of the world’s previous refugee crises. I immigrated to the United States in 1946. It was the end of my Odyssey. In 1938 the Nazis had kicked my family out of Germany; the Belgians had sheltered us during the Holocaust, but would not grant us permanent residency nor permit us to become citizens. So it was lucky that we could move to New York. I came reluctantly. I viewed my future countrymen as “ugly Americans” who had more than the rest of the world and were arrogant about it. It took me some time to appreciate the fact that once I arrived I had equal rights and the possibility to have a pleasant, normal life.
Some of my realization of how unique the United States was in that respect came from the story of my young cousin Jorge. Born in the Czech Republic to German parents, he had legally arrived in Mexico at the tender age of three. When he was eighteen he still was a foreigner. When he wished to study abroad he could not apply for any of the many available scholarships because he was not a Mexican citizen. Jorge fell in between the cracks. The United States grants citizenship after five years or even sooner. My sister obtained a full scholarship to Yale four years after we arrived in the United States.
Somehow, in spite of much opposition, the people who governed America during much of its existence have managed to share America’s pie more equally. We not only grant citizenship, but also developed an imperfect safety net. We have social security, public schooling, affordable healthcare for many, maternity and paternity leave, school lunches, and much more. The system is flawed, but we cannot dismantle it without throwing the country into complete disarray.
I hope that the new administration will think long and carefully about what it does. A look at some of our neighbors indicates how quickly a country can tumble from prosperity to insolvency and chaos.