Whatever Happened to Justice for All?

The year 2017 has been a great one for immigrants — if you measure it by the number of applications for U.S. citizenship. Since Donald Trump’s election, the country’s Citizenship and Immigration Department has seen a dramatic spike in applications from lawful permanent residents.

Ten years ago, I was one of them. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, I — like so many other Green Card holders — rushed to apply for citizenship. At that time, like today, the U.S. was gripped by an anti-immigration sentiment. I was afraid that if I didn’t officially embrace my chosen country, I might be pushed out of it.

At the same time, I wondered whether the country that I’d come to in 1993 as a graduate student with a dissertation project on Kafka and the law was still the one I was joining. Even back in 2008 when I gained citizenship, I worried that the U.S. was incrementally turning against its own founding principles.

My doubts dissipated at my naturalization ceremony. A general from the National Guard welcomed all 130 of us. He encouraged us not to give up our foreignness, but to weave our different cultural backgrounds into the American fabric.

Becoming an American citizen is not a state of being, he emphasized, but a journey, an everlasting project like the United States itself, full of conflicts and diverse passions. He explained that in a country of immigrants, we should feel like the true Americans who are poised to transform the American experience.

I remember thinking how unique his framing was. His was not just a tolerant acceptance of differences, but an outright celebration of them. Naturalization ceremonies in Germany, my native country, or most likely in any other part of the world, would never express such a capacious vision of belonging.

From that moment, I said the last words of the pledge of allegiance with renewed understanding and awe. “With liberty and justice for all” really did include all: citizens and non-citizens alike, a concept that far expands the scope of a dream that is often called “American.”

But now it is 2017. The anxieties I had before my naturalization ceremony have come to fruition, and even surpassed my darkest fears.

President Trump’s travel bans, his retweeting of anti-Muslim videos, rescinding of DACA, and pardoning of Sheriff Joe Arpaio make clear that the prime target of this administration is immigrants.

But with a frightening twist. The current administration has effectively treated many of its citizens the way other countries treat immigrants. Consider the botched disaster relief efforts in Puerto Rico, Trump’s reaction to the NFL protests and to Charlottesville, the stigmatization of poverty, soaring inequality, and the concerted voter suppression efforts across parts of the country. These demonstrate that the idea and practice of “justice for all” no longer applies even to Americans by birth, blood, or naturalization.

How did we get from a country that saw its immigrants as the pride of its citizenry to a place where human rights are not extended even to all of its own citizens?

Certainly one reason is the president. As one political blogger recently put it, “if there’s one defining feature of the Donald Trump era, it’s the tearing down of America’s unwritten political, cultural, and institutional norms.”

But such excesses are symptoms of a more fundamental crisis. We, the people, have lost hold of our public discourse. Instead of merely defending the rule of law and trafficking in the language of Trump’s choosing, we should create, like the founding fathers, new concepts of justice that draw on the oldest ones.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson insisted on studying the ancients to learn about the passion for justice and man’s capacity for self-government. After all, Western political thought originates with Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics. They are foundational documents that chart a path from might to right, from a life of tyranny to the good life — in the city as much as in one’s own soul.

In that spirit, I would ask my fellow Americans: what sort of world do we want to live in? Does a true politics not also include doing justice to the downtrodden, the forgotten, the vanquished and the dead, according to a long tradition from Pericles’ funeral oration to Lincoln’s Gettysburg address? How can we conceive of justice as a form of life and as a form of love, in the way Socrates spoke of?

What is a definition of justice in the first place? Is justice, as Cornell West said, “what love looks like in public,” or does it mean something else today?

The framers understood that a vibrant discourse of justice dampens tyrannical wildfires much better than the rule of law. Let’s not forget, “to establish Justice” is the second line of our Constitution. Like Socrates, the framers saw justice not as an object to have, but as a conflictual journey to undertake — like becoming a U.S. citizen, or like the project of America itself. As James Madison observed in “The Federalist No.10,” the more citizens learn to live and think in the plural, the stronger the bond among them.

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