The Chess Prodigy and Asylum Policy

4/9/19 Asylum

Eight-year old Tanitoluwa Adewumi, who goes by the nickname Tani, shares many characteristics with other young prodigies who inhabit the rarified air of world class chess. He spends hours a day happily solving tactical puzzles out of sheer love for the game. He is gifted with the preternatural ability to look at the pieces on the chessboard and quickly envision, many, many moves ahead, how he will maneuver them toward checkmating his opponent’s king. He plays with a daring style that leaves his opponents breathless, brazenly sacrificing major pieces in exchange for lesser ones so as to gain insurmountable positional advantages on the board that his bewildered counterparts cannot foresee or comprehend until too late.

Yet, despite the growing public awareness of his chess-playing abilities, Tani did something last month that nobody could have predicted: he won the New York State Scholastic Chess Championship for his age group. This is a phenomenal accomplishment by any measure. But considering Tani’s achievement in light of the tremendous obstacles he has had to hurdle in his short life thus far, it truly beggars belief.  Because, you see, despite the similarities Tani bears to other chess prodigies, a few important things set him apart from them, and apart from his other peers, as well.

Tanitoluwa Adewumi, the newly-crowned New York State Chess Champion, is currently homeless, living in a small room with his mother in a shelter in New York City while his father works two jobs to help provide money for the family. Even more remarkable, Tani did not know a single thing about chess until he was introduced to the game a little over a year ago … after he and his family first arrived on the shores of America as refugees seeking a better life in this country, fleeing persecution at the violent hands of Boko Haram in their native Nigeria. Yet Tani competed, and won, against 73 other excellent competitors who enjoyed many advantages he has only dreamed of—years of practice and private chess coaching, food on the table for every meal, a safe and permanent home. And he dreams still bigger. Tani’s goal, he says, is to become the world’s youngest chess grandmaster.

But perhaps what Tani has accomplished so far shouldn’t entirely surprise us. The tremendous achievements of immigrants in this country have been documented again and again and again and again. Seen in this light, what Tani’s chess title represents, instead, is yet another reminder—one in a long and often spectacular string of reminders—that our country became great, and many Americans realized greatness, in large part because of the humanitarian ideals undergirding our rule of law. These ideals welcome immigrants to our shores with open arms and regard them as an elemental aspect of the beauty and successes of our country, not as the root of its problems. And yet, the current administration, both in terms of its harsh rhetoric and its often unconstitutional and destructive policies, has essentially declared that immigrants are bad and “other” rather than what has made our country great.

Case in point: the administration has gone out of its way to dismantle the asylum apparatus as we know it, curtailing the program so severely that denials have now skyrocketed to levels not seen before at any point this century. And, as if to rub salt in the wound, the administration just recently decided to close all of its USCIS offices abroad, harming American citizens and their families living abroad, including service members, and also diminishing the refugee and asylum-seeking processes, a cruel and myopic move that former USCIS director Leon Rodriguez has characterized as “a disaster” for our country, “a big stain on our nation” and its status in the world.

It is high time that these destructive policies are shelved once and for all. Tani and his family have applied for asylum and have a hearing scheduled for this summer, and in the short term, it is they who will suffer if their claims are denied.  In the long run, however, should the short-sighted policies and callous recklessness perpetrated by the administration in its targeting of immigrants—refugees and asylum-seekers in particular—continue unabated, it is the United States as a whole that ultimately stands to lose the most.

Bobby Kennedy once said that there are times when we as Americans must look in the mirror and ask ourselves where we are headed as a country, and what kind of nation we would like to be going forward. To this end, do we really want to tread blindly down the path of insularity and nativism while abandoning the bedrock principles upon which our nation was built? Are we not a much better, stronger, and richer country if people like Tani and his family continue to be granted the opportunity to realize their dreams, contribute to our society, and live and thrive here?

While we can hope that reason and compassion within the administration prevail in the end, and a change in course occurs that will actually help “make America great again”, we cannot stand idly by. Take action, whether on Capitol Hill or in your hometown!

by Rizwan Hassan