Assisting Immigrants as the Son of a Refugee
My name is Bernard Harcourt, and I’m a professor of law and political science at Columbia University, and the director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought. I’m also the father of of a Barnard graduate and a rising junior at Columbia College.
I was invited to present some thoughts at one of the idea stations at Ellis Island for the launch of the Columbia World Projects. The topic was ‘What Are Borders For?’ We had a fascinating and wide ranging discussion with many alumni, trustees, and others, about what we could hope for from a border, and what borders could provide.
One of the things that struck me is that borders, in large part, are there to protect immigrants from what they’re trying to escape. Borders, in effect, can serve a purpose, and a welcoming door to people in need. I was thinking a lot of my own father, who was a refugee who fled France in 1940 when he was 13 years old.
It was June 1940, and the German army was invading France, so people were trying to flee, and he was fortunate enough to get a visa to leave with his mother and sister. They were Jews, so that was difficult. But there was a Portuguese consul in Bayonne, in southern France, near Bordeaux. The consul, whose name was Mendes de Sousa, had been ordered by the Portuguese government to return to Portugal and not grant any more visas—and, in the short span of a week or so, signed approximately ten thousand visas. Basically, he was just going against orders, saving peoples’ lives. And so my father and his sister and mother were fortunate enough to get visas from the Portuguese consul, who was a real saint. He actually died in poverty in Portugal after having been released of all his functions. So they were able to escape France to get to Portugal and eventually make their way to New York. They landed in Hoboken, New Jersey, rather than Ellis Island, but I very much felt their presence when I was at Ellis myself.
I think in part that inspired me to dedicate my life to public service. I’ve represented folks on death row down in Alabama since 1990. More recently, it encouraged me to represent a young Syrian medical student who had gotten his J-1 visa cancelled right when President Trump signed the Muslim ban. I took his case with a colleague, Tom Durkin, in Chicago, and we were able to bring him back into the country to continue his residency, without which he would have been in a really difficult position in terms of his medical education.
He was at the University of Illinois in Chicago, at Mercy Hospital, and he’d been there for several months on a J-1 visa. He got married in Dubai and had the misfortune for being there during the very week that President Trump signed the Muslim ban. So when he went back to the airport to come back to the United States, his visa was cancelled with this remarkable brush stroke right through it—they wrote ‘cancelled,’ and they wrote the number of the executive order on there.
It was a really brutal act. They could easily just have told him, ‘ Sorry, you can’t go in right now, try again.’ But to deface the passport in that way—these visas and the condition of your passport really matter for your ability to travel in the world, and having the visa defaced in this way is surely the kind of thing that will cause problems when you try to enter other countries as well. It was totally unnecessary, but I think it unfortunately reflected the spirit of the times, which is hostile to immigrants, to migration, and to the thought of a more globalized world of citizens.