Former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell offered vociferous criticism of the divisive political climate and President Donald Trump’s immigration policies Tuesday.
Appearing together before a packed arena at Creighton University, in Omaha, Nebraska, as part of a Presidential Lecture Series celebrating the school’s 140th anniversary, the two former top diplomats expressed disgust over the country’s current hot political rhetoric.
“We have come to live in a society based on insults, on lies and on things that just aren’t true. It creates an environment where deranged people feel empowered,” said Powell, who served under Republican President George W. Bush.
“I’m deeply troubled by the direction we’re going,” said Albright, who served under President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. “I’m a naturalized American citizen. I came when I was 11 years old. I’m very upset about the image we’re projecting abroad.”
“There’s no way to describe what has been one of the most disappointing, horrible and un-American set of activities that’s taken place. There are divisions in our society that have come about as a result of technology and the downside of globalization, but we need leaders who look for common ground and don’t exacerbate it,” Albright said.
“We’ve seen incidents before but now, we’ve come to live in a society based on insults and attacking almost every facet of American life,” Powell said. “All of our public officials, not just the President, need to take time to talk to one another, across the aisles.”
Both criticized the Trump administration of promoting an immigration policy that demonizes those seeking a better life in the US.
“My parents came from Jamaica on banana boats and raised two children here, that one became a teacher and the other had success as a soldier. You can do that in America,” he said. “We are giving that image up and we shouldn’t. It’s the strongest message we give the rest of the world.”
Albright, who was born in Czechoslovakia, escaped the Nazis with her family just after they invaded her birth country. She later fled to America with her family as an 11-year-old refugee and became a naturalized US citizen, and later learned that she had 26 Jewish relatives killed in the Holocaust.
“I’ll never forget what it was like to come to America, on the S.S. America, past the Statue of Liberty,” Albright said. “One of the things I loved to do was hand out people’s naturalization certificates. I remember doing it July 4, 2000, at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s house. And I figured, why not? I have Thomas Jefferson’s job. And I remember giving a certificate to a man, a refugee, who said, ‘Can you believe I’m a refugee and the Secretary of State is handing me my naturalization certificate?’ I said, ‘Can you believe the Secretary of State is a refugee?’”
Both diplomatic leaders took offense to Trump’s characterizing a caravan of refugees currently traveling from Central America making their way through southern Mexico as “criminals,” “terrorists” and “unknown Middle Easterners.”
“These are hungry people trying to find a better life in America. That’s what you find in America. And now we’re seeing the separation of families again. This is a disgrace,” Powell said. “I don’t see any terrorists. I don’t see any bombs going off. I’m not saying we let everybody in, you don’t just open the door. But we should avoid language like this and see how we can solve this problem.”
Albright said Trump’s stance is “un-American.”
“I wish our Congress would get its act together and pass some comprehensive immigration legislation,” she lamented.
At one point, Powell used the President’s own slogan to urge immigration reform.
“We were great then, we’re great now, and we’ll be greater in the future because of those immigrants who make us greater still,” Powell said.
And on the President’s renewed call to issue an executive order to end the automatic right for citizenship for those born in the US, Powell said dryly, “Trump needs to re-read the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. He doesn’t have the authority to rewrite birthright citizenship.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the details of how Albright and her family came to the US and when she found out that her relatives were killed in the Holocaust.