So let’s get this right: A woman from Alabama, daughter of Yemeni parents, was radicalized and went to Syria to fight for ISIS. There, she married three ISIS fighters in succession, used social media to incite the killing of Americans, promoted the assassination of President Obama, pushed violent acts against the West, and had a baby – then got captured by the Kurds, and now wants to come to the United States.
Secretary of State Pompeo has said: No dice. She “is not a U.S. citizen and will not be admitted into the United States,” adding she has no “legal basis, no valid US passport, no right to a passport, nor any visa to travel to the United States.” Case closed.
Yet, in our upside down world, this terrorist wants in. Why is a good question, and one worth asking with vigor, but we must expect someone will take up her case, pleading for reentry – and all the risk that entails. While the case is rare, it is instructive. Here is why.
The failure that led to this state of affairs is layered – and cautionary. America and Americans have always prided themselves – ourselves – on assimilating legal refugees, asylum grantees and immigrants. The traditional way that happens is that a refugee family – in this case from Yemen – is introduced to American culture, language, history, civic order, duties and rights, and becomes a proud part of a proud nation with an exceptional history.
In this process, they maintain family and cultural norms, but learn the higher value and expectations tied to rule of law in a republic respect for others, three branches of government in constitutional equipoise, the Bill of Rights, and how we try to behave in our exceptional, pluralistic society.
They learn how and why we are so special, about American ideals, and about the aspirations we all share – individually and together – for individual liberty consistent with equality of opportunity. They learn that dreams can be conceived, pursued, and achieved – in this remarkable place we call America.
Only that state of assimilation is at risk – and this case proves the point. In Europe, there have historically been pockets and patches of humanity that were knowingly left unassimilated. In those pockets, poverty, resentment and isolation have bred violence and today, continue to invite disaffection. But in the United States, since multiculturalism and respect for the individual is at the heart of everything we are, we have pressed the case for assimilation – of everyone.
But this norm is breaking down. And the radicalizing Sharia-centric enclave in Alabama that produced this runaway ISIS fighter – like several skulking in other places – is proof. What we have failed to do – are collectively failing to do – is make clear that America still strives for and survives by assimilation, that we aim to be one country, under one loving God, speaking one language, abiding one Constitution, enjoying one set of shared rights and duties. When we forget that, we get the sort of violent extremists that this case represents.
But there is more, and it relates to this case. Let us be crystal clear: What this woman did was treason, by both constitutional and federal statutory law. That crime, the only one articulated with specificity in the US Constitution, carries a penalty from five years to death.
What exactly is punished? Specifically: “Levying war against the state,” “adhering to enemies of the state,” and “aiding the enemies of the state.” She did all three – with vehemence and consequence. As Secretary Pompeo inferred, she gave up her right to US citizenship when she left America to wage war on America – on us. Britain recently stripped a former citizen of the right for similar reasons.
But let’s get more specific. This individual could be indicted, on facial evidence, for crimes from terrorism, conspiracy and complicity to commit felonies to attempted murder, along with treason. A catalogue of violent crimes with which she might reasonably be charged carries a mean sentence of roughly 20 years. By example, admitted anti-American ISIS terrorist Jose Padilla just got a 21 year sentence. Last, note that Alabama has its own state level laws – including against treason, a crime that in that state alone carries a penalty of not less than ten and not more than 99 years.
So, no, there is not an easy way back for this avowed terrorist, no matter how contrite upon being captured. There is no easy return to status quo ante for someone who has long and vociferously advocated death to all Americans, radicalized in a radical Islamic enclave, and now wants back into American society – for whatever purpose. Secretary Pompeo is right, that privilege is lost.
But the bigger issue remains. This case puts it in sharp, painful focus: Are we doing enough, day-in and day-out, to educate newly arrived foreign neighbors, to teach pride and inclusion, timeless principles and shared hope, mutual affection and well-grounded respect for American history – goodness and greatness embodied common purpose? Are we working to assimilate, not just imagining that this secret sauce will pour itself out on new arrivals?
If there is any lesson, beyond the shame in betraying a nation that has given one everything, it may be this: Assimilation is still important. That is why we place limits on how many legal immigrants enter America annually from specific countries, why we seek to deter illegal entrants, and why we work as Americans to teach lawful new arrivals about our proud past – to protect our proud future. That is what President Trump has been trying to say – and why it matters.