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These immigrants are real Americans

Jack Lessenberry

A few hours before Donald Trump spoke in Warren yesterday, I spoke with a handful of people who he probably knows nothing about, but who may be the most truly American of all.

They were all residents of something called Freedom House, in a century-old, red brick former convent, just a stone’s throw from the Ambassador Bridge.

They are all seeking asylum in the United States. They were persecuted in their native countries. You learn not to ask if those who live here have been tortured. The more sensible question would be whether any haven’t been tortured.

This week, the answer was no. Somehow, from another refugee, from a scrap of paper shoved into their hands, they heard of this place and got to Detroit.

They are neither legal nor illegal immigrants, but are protected by law as asylum seekers. Those who wrote the Constitution recognized that America was founded by those who fled persecution.

So they established that anyone with a legitimate fear of that could apply for asylum here. They have to prove that they would be persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, social group or opinions, and that their governments are unable or unwilling to stop it.

Today, 40-some people are clustered here, waiting to try and persuade the courts to grant them asylum. Virtually all win their cases, though that often takes more than a year.

When it comes to meeting their needs in the meantime, somehow Freedom House gets it done. There are attorneys who often volunteer their time; psychologists who help them cope. I was curious to know what the asylum-seekers thought of our American political system.

I found them fascinated and more concerned than frightened. Everyone had watched the presidential debates. Ornicia, a woman in her mid-twenties from Brazzaville in the Congo, was typical.

“I found them fascinating,” she told me in near-perfect British English. Later, I realized that she spoke fluent French and Russian as well, in addition to her native language.

“On the whole, it was a very positive experience, to see how two candidates respond to questions,” she said, as Ernest, a young man from Rwanda and Robert, who is from Uganda, nodded their heads. “And also,” she added, “I have to say I think it showed that Mr. Donald Trump is not ready.”

There was general agreement. Why? I asked. “Because of the way he was answering the questions, his attitudes.” I had expected the refugees to be frightened and apprehensive.

Instead, they mainly seemed puzzled. How can a man get to the position of being nominated for the nation’s highest office, and be so ignorant of the world?

Soon, it turned out that they were more interested in questioning me. They had met many people here who had only the vaguest idea about how their own government worked, and even less about other countries.

How could that be?

I answered as best I could. These are folks who have endured things we can’t imagine, and already know more about how our system works than most of us.

They are, in a very real sense, Americans already, the best of us. It made me wish some people would go visit them and be willing to learn.

Somehow, I know that would leave us all much better off.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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