After nearly 3,000 Americans were murdered on September 11, 2001, President Bush spoke to the nation and to the world. He assured us—Muslim and non-Muslim—that American was not at war with Islam. Would that President Trump had spoken similar words before instituting his immigration ban on seven majority-Muslim countries. But that is not Mr. Trump’s style.
The resulting firestorm may have been pleasing to the President’s most ardent supporters, who seem to relish the sight of suffering families and damaged government institutions, but for those of us concerned about national security, morality, and the rule of law, the President’s Executive Orders (“EOs”) were a frightening development.
The problem, though, was not so much the EOs themselves, the effect of which is not immediately obvious, and in any case, portions of which have been blocked by the courts, but rather the divisive rhetoric attached to the orders. Let me explain.
The EOs, which are currently blocked by the courts, would bar nationals of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Libya from entering the United States for 90 days. All refugees would be barred from entering the country for 120 days, and Syrian refugees would be barred indefinitely. On its face, this is not a Muslim ban. If you are from one of the listed countries, you are barred from entry, regardless of your religion, and if you are a Muslim person from another country, you are not barred from entry. But to me, this is a case of “That’s what it says; that’s not what it means.”
So what does it mean? First, in the context of campaign statements disparaging to Muslims, and some statements by Trump surrogates, it’s easy to see why many are interpreting the EOs as a first step towards a more general Muslim ban. Rumors are swirling that the list of countries will be expanded, to include more Muslim nations, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. In addition, the EOs direct the government to track and publish information about crimes committed by aliens, with a particular emphasis on people convicted of terrorism-related offenses, people who have been “radicalized after entry,” and “gender-based violence against women or honor killings.” Further, the EOs call for a “realignment” of refugee admissions to focus on refugees who are from a “minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” It’s hard not to view all this as targeting Muslims.
But perhaps I’ve gotten it all wrong. There have been counter-arguments advanced by the President’s defenders. After all, the EOs do not directly refer to Muslims, and the listed nations are either chaotic (Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Libya), malignant (Iran) or both (Sudan, Syria). Also, as the EOs require, we should be keeping track of aliens who engage in criminal behavior or who support or commit terrorism (indeed, I myself have argued for such transparency in this blog).
But here is why I don’t buy the counter-arguments and why I believe the EOs are designed to target Muslims: The President is very aware that many people view the orders as a Muslim ban, but he has said nothing to allay the fears of Muslims and immigrants in the U.S. or our Muslim allies abroad. He could easily have issued these same exact EOs and avoided the chaos by better explaining his intentions. He chose to not do that. Maybe it’s me projecting, but I can’t help but feel that he and his core staff are getting some sadistic pleasure watching the suffering and confusion that they are causing. I imagine they also view the mess they’ve made as evidence that they are fulfilling their promises to get tough on immigration and to protect the homeland.
It almost goes without saying that things could have been done differently. The ban could have been explained as a necessary and temporary policy adjustment to enhance our national security. President Trump could have expressed his sorrow that such orders were needed, and he could have reassured people that the ban was only temporary. He could also have made some positive statements about immigrants and Muslims, especially those who are serving with us in the war on terror. But he did not. So all of us are left to wonder whether this is a short-term measure targeting only the listed countries, or whether it is the beginning of something bigger. For American Muslims and immigrants, and for our allies abroad, the uncertainty of the EOs is probably worse than the EOs themselves.
The question, though, is what do we do from here? At this point, it would be naïve to expect any comforting rhetoric, or even common decency, from our President, so I think it is up to us—immigrants, advocates, and their supporters—to craft a response to the new reality.
For me, the protests are a good start. They show our solidarity and our strength (indeed, this is precisely why we held the Refugee Ball last month). There is some comfort in knowing that you are not alone and that the larger community is ready to defend you, and refugees and immigrants in our country are certainly not alone. Tens of thousands of protesters in the streets and at airports have demonstrated as much. We also see this as hundreds of elected representatives and other leaders have been speaking out in defense of our non-citizen neighbors.
Lawsuits—such as the lawsuits by the ACLU and several state governments—are also crucial. Thus far, they have blocked some of the most offensive portions of the EOs. The lawsuits show that the protections of our laws and Constitution extend to all non-citizen in our country and quite possible to some non-citizens who are outside our country. This will, I hope, provide some comfort to those in the Administration’s crosshairs.
Legislation in various states and municipalities is also important. Such action can serve to shield non-citizens from some provisions of the orders, particularly those that seek to encourage (or more accurately, coerce) local governments to help enforcement federal immigration law. They also potentially help build momentum for more positive legislative change on a national level.
Finally, volunteering to assist non-citizens–with housing, food, job search, English–helps such people integrate into our communities and feel more welcome in our country. If you are looking for volunteer opportunities, you might try contacting a local non-profit organization.
While these actions cannot fully allay the fear felt by refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, Muslims, and many others in our country, they are all signs of the strong resistance President Trump faces to his policies and to his divisive world view. As we move through this difficult time, we must continue to resist hatred and work to support each other.