This past weekend, we learned that America's immigration system twice denied visas to an all-female robotics team from Afghanistan attempting to visit the U.S. to compete in the 2017 First Global Challenge, an international robotics competition in Washington, D.C.
Maybe it's because I'm the father of three young girls, or that I now work in the tech industry, or that I am the son of a refugee and immigrant – but the story of these six Afghan girls is one I could not simply read about and then go about my business. It felt bigger to me. In a sense, this case seemed to be challenging all of us to ask ourselves what interests and values we want reflected in our immigration system.
At the very least, this is more evidence of a broken immigration system, I thought. According to the Associated Press, "The U.S. won’t say why the girls were rejected for visas, citing confidentiality. But [Afghanistan's Ambassador to the U.S. Hamdullah] Mohib said that based on discussions with U.S. officials, it appears the girls were rebuffed due to concerns they would not return to Afghanistan."
In other words, our immigration system ignored the benefit and opportunity to us of having these smart, brave girls – who had twice made the dangerous 500-mile journey from their homes to the U.S. embassy in Kabul, only to be denied visas – visit the U.S. and arbitrarily denied them entry.
Disagreement seems to be a way of life in Washington politics, but we should be able to find consensus around the idea that it is in our national interest to proactively and strategically recruit foreign-born innovators like these young women to become Americans and innovate here as Americans. Our policies should view competitions like this one held on U.S. soil as recruiting opportunities. And when temporary travel visa applications like theirs appear before our immigration system, featuring brave young people overcoming all odds to pursue educations in the STEM disciplines, sirens signaling a prime recruiting opportunity should go off instead of an inexplicable stop light.
Fortunately, President Trump intervened at the last minute, and the girls were granted visas to visit the U.S. to compete. But this case involving six talented and determined girls who were playing by the rules should have been one of the easy calls to make in our immigration system. It should not have required the President’s personal intervention to resolve it.
Moved by this story, on Tuesday I visited the robotics competition at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall. Here – in a hallway adorned with the Preamble to the Constitution that has inspired the constitutions of so many other nations – these are some of the things I saw:
I saw the booth for Croatia, a country once ravaged by a civil war, with a banner promoting the Croatian Robotic Association, yet another reminder of just how far they've come:
I saw the team from Haiti, which some consider a failed state plagued by chronic corruption, mismanagement and horrific natural disasters in the past decade. But I saw no failures here. On the contrary, I saw young engineering wizards with the kind of STEM talent we need more of in our own country:
I saw the boisterous Israeli and Jamaican teams, singing, chanting, and dancing alongside each other – a competition in its own right, apparently to see who had more spirit:
I saw collaboration among competitors and a willingness to help each other:
I saw innocence and brilliance. I saw memories being created that will last a lifetime. I saw budding friendships consummated by the signing of each others' t-shirts:
And then I saw the six-girl Afghan team.
Despite all the media attention surrounding their participation, they were poised, focused, and enthusiastic:
They were grouped together with Australia and Ivory Coast in a multi-country team game that ended in a tie. From the way they hugged and celebrated afterwards, you would have thought they won the game:
They graciously took selfies with other competitors:
They even took one with me:
When all was said and done, the Afghan team took home a silver medal for "courageous achievement."
They departed the U.S. on Thursday, landing in Kabul, and then making the 500-mile trek home, through Taliban controlled areas, in a country where young educated girls like them remain the exception, not the rule.
So what did their visit to the U.S. and participation in this competition mean?
For starters, all of us should hope these six girls from Afghanistan return home as heroes and role models – of course to other girls, but also to boys, all of whose lives and homeland will benefit from the educational and the economic opportunities these six girls are already seizing.
But what about us? As Americans, what interests and values do we want reflected in our own immigration system?
For starters, we should want an immigration system designed to proactively and strategically recruit innovators like these six Afghan girls – and the young people competing in Washington this past week – because they will help us fill critical jobs and innovate technologies that will change the world and create more jobs here. We should want an immigration system that welcomes talented people from around the world to contribute to our country and aspire to be Americans. We should want an immigration system and a country that inspires naturalized Americans and their descendants to spend the rest of their days as Americans showing their gratitude to this great land and repaying the debt they feel for having been provided a chance to succeed.
Sadly, in recent years, it seems we have been hearing more about all that is wrong with our immigration system and less about all that remains right with it. Too often, we hear how Americans are losing from immigration and stand to lose more from it in the future, and not enough about what we have already gained as a country and how we can continue to benefit. Too often, we hear more about what immigrants take from America and not enough about what they provide America.
Of course, there are problems that need to be fixed, abuses to end, reforms to make, American sovereignty to uphold, and a nation to protect from bad actors exploiting our immigration system. But, if nothing else, the six-girl Afghan robotics team reminds us that welcoming people from other countries is an inherently American action that doesn't just feel good; it's the right thing to do and a proper reflection of our values. They reminded us that just as there are talented people all over the world who would consider themselves lucky to be Americans, we would be just as fortunate about them becoming our fellow Americans (if they chose to pursue that path, followed the rules, and we let them). And they reminded us that coming to America and seizing the opportunities we offer here – is well worth the arduous journey, even if only for a brief visit.
Eventually, everything worked out this time with this case of the all-girl Afghan robotics team. They came, they competed, and they inspired us. But we as a country are better than what our broken immigration system reflected the first two times these girls' visas were rejected.
We deserve better as a country, and it's long past time to fix it.