Last week, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, perhaps in a telling of things to come, said on his show that Omar “has an awful lot to be grateful for” but “hates this country more than ever.” He doubled down on his comments the following night, arguing that arriving in this country as a refugee should prevent her from criticizing the United States.
Then President Donald Trump started in, tweeting over the weekend about how “interesting” it was to see members of Congress “from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” try to criticize and lead the U.S. themselves and telling them to “go back” to where they were from. Most of the women he referred to—Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—are U.S.-born citizens, whereas Omar’s family, from Somalia, sought asylum here when she was 12. She became a naturalized citizen at 17.
The former have tried to cover their asses, but the latter has molded Trump’s racism and xenophobia into an argument that might seem on its face a bit less vitriolic than Trump’s bald racism—that Omar must hate America, since she’s bucking the unwritten “model minority” rule by daring to criticize a country that so selflessly accepted her and her family in their time of need. (Another route they’ve taken to justify the dog-piling: resurrecting Omar’s previous comments criticizing Israel, once again smearing her as anti-Semitic, a line of attack they’ve also tried on Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib.)
These conservatives, grasping at straws to justify the president’s racist comments, have backed themselves into a corner, scraping together weak defenses for Trump’s indefensible attacks on these elected women of color. Because if they can paint Omar as the aggressor—if she is the one with hate in her heart—Republicans can get away with being hateful themselves.
But the idea that Omar is ungrateful or that she hates this country could not be more laughable and completely, offensively wrong. As an immigrant, she’s had to prove her allegiance and love for America more than any American-born citizen, even a first-generation child of immigrants, can ever know. And as a Muslim woman from an African country, she’s had to prove her patriotism and worth to this country time and time again.
This arbitrary rule that immigrants, particularly refugees or asylum seekers, are not allowed to criticize and demand better from their government rings completely hollow, but it’s one that many immigrants are made to feel like they have no choice but to follow. America, falsely lauded as a country founded on accepting all immigrants, makes immigrants the other, then demands they meet the expectation to be no different than any other citizen. Assimilate—and shut up—or fail.
And so, they can’t complain. Not when they find that the American dream comes with terms and conditions—isolation, racism, xenophobia. Not when school bullies stick gum on their hijabs, as Omar experienced as a child. Not when they’re asked where they’re really from, or are made fun of for speaking with an accent that doesn’t sound “American,” or dubbed “you people,” an insult my mom hears every day at her customer service job in a call center. They must uphold the stereotypes of the model immigrant and minority or be deemed an outsider who isn’t worthy of being an American. Coupled with the knowledge of the advantages they have living in the U.S. that they might never have been afforded in their home country, they can’t complain, and so they rarely do.
And still, immigrants are forced to learn, firsthand, exactly how this country fails its most vulnerable residents. Omar’s experience as a Muslim and a Somali American is exactly what has allowed her to learn where America falls short—where it fails its citizens, natural-born and naturalized. Yet, despite it all, Omar loves this country. Speaking on a panel at Netroots Nation over the weekend, Omar said that despite being criticized as anti-American for daring to criticize how our country conducts itself, “I believe, as an immigrant, I probably love this country more than anyone that is naturally born.”
She’s pledged her allegiance, once again. But unsurprisingly, her comment only fueled more intense scrutiny—with her speaking the absolute goddamn truth read as some kind of affront to natural-born Americans. When she’s critical of the U.S., she’s un-American. And yet, when she reaffirms her love for the U.S., she’s still un-American. In that catch-22 lies the truth behind the Republicans’ rush to reframe Trump’s remarks from racism to patriotism—in the eyes of her worst critics, Omar will never measure up to their racist ideals of how an immigrant should be, no matter what she says or does.