How Trump’s isolationist policies harm American arts and culture
For performers like renowned Mexican actress and playwright Conchi León, Donald Trump’s reactionary, isolationist presidency has done little to dampen the appeal of America’s vibrant theater scene.
No one anticipated any problems when León agreed to stage the international debut of her newest play “La Tía Mariela” (Aunt Mariela) at Chicago’s esteemed International Latino Theater Festival in October. Sure, Donald Trump took a hard nativist line against Mexican immigrants he claimed in 2015 were mostly drug traffickers and rapists. But León wasn’t looking to immigrate. And anyway, the organizers thought, her long record of honors and awards spoke for itself.
On September 24, Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art tweeted that “La Tía Mariela” was off “due to circumstances beyond our control.” Despite filing hundreds of pages of supporting evidence outlining León’s distinguished career as a performer and writer, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) denied touring visas to León, her cast and crew.
The play wasn’t culturally unique, USCIS seemed to be telling producers Once Once Producciones. It lacked cultural value to the United States. Stay home, USCIS told León and her performers — the United States isn’t interested in hearing your story.
“You are talking about a production that is spearheaded entirely by women. Let’s start there,” theater festival co-curator Jorge Valdivia told local reporters. “The songs, the music of Yucatan is also unique. I thought it was important for us to present it and bring it to Chicago.”
Taken alone, León’s situation might be read as a fluke, even given the Trump administration’s well-documented hostility to all forms of foreign movement, from seeking asylum to legal immigration to working visas. But the injustice handed down to León cannot be taken alone. It is merely the most recent in a long list of Trump administration visa rejections — many intended to send a political point to Trump’s domestic and international critics.
Trump’s frequent cry that “America is full” is reflected in the spike in visa rejections since 2017. Media attention focuses on the most egregious examples of Trump’s isolationism — his indefensible Muslim travel ban tops the list, next to gut-wrenching acts like blocking visas for Iraqis who assisted our troops and even saved American lives during the Iraq War.
On September 29, a gathering of leading Chinese American scholars condemned the Trump administration’s attempt to target Chinese students attending American colleges. Trump recently floated the idea of canceling Chinese student visas in an incomprehensible escalation of his faltering trade war with China. Trump, who appears to believe foreign students are in the United States solely to steal American intellectual property, would happily close the doors to international students who make our elite American universities into global research leaders.
In Trump’s America, visa rejections aren’t about making the United States safer — they exist to clamp down on opposing viewpoints. That is especially true when visa applicants represent foreign exceptionalism hailing from places Trump considers to be “s–thole countries.” For Muslims, the numbers are even bleaker: Nearly 40,000 have been denied tourist visas since Trump took office.
Take Nasratullah Elham, a 17-year-old Afghan student invited to attend the first United Nations Youth Climate Summit last week. Elham was one of 100 exceptional international students selected for an all-expenses-paid trip to New York to attend the U.N. summit. Elham founded the Laghman Peace Volunteers initiative in Afghanistan, a campaign that argues even struggling nations like Afghanistan have a role to play in combating global climate change.
Instead of taking his place alongside visa recipient and youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, Elham learned that his visa had been rejected. The State Department argued that, even though Elham applied for a non-immigrant visa, he might try to remain in the country as an undocumented immigrant.
None of Trump’s outrageous behavior is new. In 2017, the State Department denied touring visas to a group of six teenage girls from Afghanistan who were invited to attend an international robotics competition. After an international outcry, the White House allowed the girls to attend the conference under “probation.” No one in the White House could explain the initial denial or the sudden reversal.
Our isolationism may appeal to Trump’s die-hard nativist base, but it comes at the cost of American strength. The United States opened her doors to students, engineers, scientists and tourists because we understand the value of bringing together diverse opinions and fresh ideas. With our doors closed, America’s greatest export – our free and expressive culture – will rot like so many tons of soybeans blocked from foreign markets.
In a different, more welcoming America, a child in Chicago may have seen Conchi León’s newest play and been inspired to pursue theater or writing. A student struggling with robotics may have looked to those six Afghan teens as inspiration to continue innovating. Nasratullah Elham might have stolen the spotlight from Greta Thunberg. Instead, there is only the cultural void of an America uninterested in embracing the openness that makes us great.
Like so many of Trump’s isolationist policies, there is no good way to measure how many intangible opportunities have been lost to denied visas and canceled speeches. By closing America’s doors to tourists and academics, we risk closing the door on our future as a global leader. It is time to reconsider.
Max Burns is a veteran Democratic strategist and senior contributor at Millennial Politics. He appears on Fox News, Fox Business, and Bloomberg Radio. Follow him on Twitter @TheMaxBurns