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Two years ago this week, President Trump introduced an entry ban for all Syrian refugees and those from seven Muslim-majority countries. The order was widely condemned by many, both in the US and internationally, but Nour Halabi suggests that it may have had a silver lining. Through her research on, and conversations with, Muslim Americans she finds that the discriminatory travel ban has motivated many to campaign for more welcoming immigration policies and to run for elected office. 

On January 27th, 2017, less than 10 days after taking the oath of office, President Donald Trump enacted an executive order indefinitely halting entry of Syrian refugees into the United States. The order also placed a 90-day ban on the entry of visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. In many ways, the Executive Order recalls the Chinese Exclusion Act among immigration scholars.

At the time the Muslim Travel Ban was passed, I was launching a multi-year project that looked at hospitality as an ethical ideal that could be practiced in immigration policy and in our conversations of and about immigration in the media. Yet, all around me, hospitality seemed to be shrinking. The title of President John F. Kennedy’s memoir Nation of Immigrants began to seem to represent more of fading dream than reality of life as an immigrant in the United States.

Shrinking hospitality also narrowed the horizons for research and education. Unfortunately, my multi-country study of immigration policy and its coverage in the media needed to be scrapped in favor of a project that didn’t require me leaving the United States. I was, after all, a Syrian doctoral student, with no guarantee that I would be able to reenter the country to resume my research if I left. The H1B visa was also being questioned, which meant that candidates like me could not remain and teach in American universities for a brief time even if they wanted to.

I had to rethink my research, and what I found is a lesson that would interest many American immigrants and minorities. Orienting my research towards the United States highlighted that our conversations on immigration policy in the United States, and how to improve the welcome immigrants encounter in immigration policy must be a continuous practice that regularly translates ethical and humanitarian ideals in order for us to live up to the aspiration of being a “nation of immigrants.”

In 2017, codeswitch invited professor Erika Lee to reflect on the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act. She astutely noted that 135 years later, the United States has created a similar exclusionary immigration policy that targets a group of immigrants because of their race and religion. Her observation points to an important misunderstanding of immigration policy in the United States, and that is the impression that immigration policy has improved in the past and that immigration policy is not a pressing matter for progressives. In fact, public discourse on immigration reform focuses more on reforming immigration towards restricting so-called “criminal aliens” further and protecting borders. The Muslim Travel Ban has ruptured any such delusions for the public and mobilized public action on immigration.

To understand the changes in attitudes towards immigration, particularly among Muslim Americans and immigrants, I sent out a call for interviews to capture the impact the executive order has had on their lives.

Hundreds responded, many only to share the burden the executive order has placed on their families. Predictably, both the Exclusion Act and the Travel Ban were disruptive to family life, celebrations, gatherings and the bond between the generations. To overcome the interruptions of the vast oceans that separated families during the Exclusion Era and afterwards, Chinese immigrants engaged in a low-fi type of photo-shopping, pasting family members’ faces into family photographs (Figure 1).

Figure 1– Low Family Portrait, Museum of Chinese in America Collection (circa 1940)

Similarly, during the Muslim Ban, Muslim women I spoke to complained that, “the ban has taken away the ability to visit my family.” Others have pointed out that the policy has “deprived [their] children of the ability to meet and know [their] grandparents.” Another pointed out that the passage of the ban left members of their family in limbo, as visa applications remained pending. For example, one told me: “Even though I am an American citizen, my husband has not been able to get a visa. We have been married for three years.” Indeed, the Muslim Travel Ban, followed by the family separation policy and the push to remove birthright citizenship of foreign-born children all reveal a consistent strategy by the Trump administration to shatter immigrant families.

If the separation of immigrant families remained a veiled strategy during the passage of the Muslim Travel Ban, the family separation policy that came a year afterward certainly left that intention bare for all Americans to witness.

Some recent commentary suggests that – especially after a version of the travel ban was upheld by the Supreme Court last June – President Trump has “won”. Yes, the ban is still ruining lives two years on, but ironically, the brutality and the inhumanity of these exclusionary and discriminatory policies has motivated Muslim Americans and immigrants to advocate for more welcoming immigration policies in future governments.

Two years after the passage of the ban, my interviews with Muslim Americans and Muslim immigrants in the United States point to several unintended and unforeseen consequences of the order.

Featured image credit: Masha George (Flickr, CC0 Public Domain)

As Jumana told me, the response to the Muslim Ban pointed out a monumental shift in solidarity with Muslim Americans. For example, she recalls attending a protest at Washington DC’s Dulles airport saying, “I saw so many people I knew from the Muslim community, but then I expected them to be there. She added, “I witnessed the most heartwarming scene and tears automatically started rolling down my cheek. There was a much larger crowd than I expected, mostly individuals who didn’t identify with the Muslim community in any way, representatives of organizations, and volunteer lawyers and translators.” She added, “the solidarity with the plight of Muslims was also important because “it encouraged many in the Muslim community to come out who would otherwise not go.”

In fact, my research so far has noticed that among a younger generation of American Muslim women, the policy has sparked encouraged indignant anger that fueled new political engagement. Marwa Z. responded, “So what did I do as a Syrian Muslim woman when the Muslim ban went into effect? I joined ACLU, an organization that defends human rights and I became a monthly sponsor. I volunteered to be an Arabic translator at the airport in case a refugee needed help communicating with the lawyers. I made sure that my whole family went out to vote this midterm election.” In fact, many responses echoed Marwa’s comments, suggesting that Muslim women were eager to get family members to register in the past Mid-term election.

The immigrants I spoke to had already observed the electoral impact of this new engagement. Especially given the election of Muslims Rashida Tlaeb and Ilhan Omar to Congress in 2018. As Sarah told me, “the new congresswomen that have been elected in the mid-terms are giving us hope of political change on the horizon, and an incoming democratic leadership that is more sympathetic and attentive to the struggles of immigrants in the United States.”

Muslim immigrants I spoke to also repeatedly pointed to another sentiment: Hope. When interviewing them about their experience, they expressed interest in my project and in where I hoped to publish it. Samah [whose name means generosity and tolerance] told me, “I hope your project makes an echo [impact] that is heard by this administration who has been deaf to our concerns.” As a researcher, it is humbling to hear such views. It is also telling that many who would have previously preferred to bear the burden of policies in silence are choosing to speak out in interviews with me, and the Democratic Party would do well to pay attention to their voices in the future.

If a more inclusive Democratic platform emerges in 2020, the Travel Ban may indeed be a blessing in disguise for the Muslim American community which is eager to make its concerns heard to future administrations and for the Democratic Party who would gain a significant voting block.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. 

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About the author

Nour HalabiUniversity of Leeds
Dr Nour Halabi is a Lecturer of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on social movements, migration and immigration policy and the political economy of communication. Her most recent project examines the concept of hospitality as an ethical framework with which to examine media coverage and policy responses to forced migration in the United States.

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