On Thursday, February 9, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously to uphold the freeze of President Trump’s temporary ban on the immigration of refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries to the United States. The order’s legality is being deliberated, and what happens next remains to be seen: the case may reach the Supreme Court, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said Trump is also considering “just filing a brand-new order.”
Whatever the fate of the present ban may be, the Trump administration has made its intentions clear. For students and faculty at Tufts with roots in Muslim-majority countries, the Trump administration’s unmistakable anti-Muslim agenda is cause for alarm, casting doubt over their futures in this country.
According to the Tufts administration, the order originally applied to as many as 73 international students, faculty, and researchers from the seven targeted countries—Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen—at Tufts on visas and green cards. All who were abroad have returned safely to the US since the ban first took effect. The final member of the Tufts community to return was Mehdi Harandi, a visiting researcher in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who was welcomed at the airport when he arrived in Boston on February 3. “It felt absolutely surreal,” said junior Neeki Parsa, an American citizen of Iranian heritage, describing first hearing about the ban. “The fear sunk in a little bit after that. Throughout the day I was talking to my brothers and my cousins, and their fear kind of permeated into me.”
“I think the first thought I had [after learning of the ban] was ‘I’m going to walk across the podium for graduation completely alone,’” said senior Leili Ghaemi, a citizen of Iran and Canada. “And then I was like, ‘Oh shit, I can’t go for spring break with everyone.’” She said the implications of such a ban for her professional life after college didn’t immediately register. “Right now I’ve already started shifting my focus to jobs in Europe,” she said. “I think that’s going to be the biggest impact: after graduation I might leave here and just wave bye for some significant amount of time to the US, which is crazy.” An Iranian PhD candidate who wished to remain anonymous fears he won’t be able to find a job here if the assignment of H1B visas, which are given to foreign workers in “specialty occupations,” is suspended. “What makes [it] worse is that I cannot travel outside of US for job interviews while I’m finishing my PhD here,” he said. If he finished his PhD at a university in Europe or Canada, he added, “it [would] be hard for my advisor to continue working on the projects I am involved [in] here, and he may lose funding because of that.”
Islamophobia has long been a fact of life for many Muslim Americans, but a president advocating something like this ban is uniquely alarming, explained Kamran Rastegar, the Director of the Arabic program at Tufts. He has been forced to think about the future of his family in a way he never has before. “[My wife and I] both come from a background where we realize that stable situations can change very quickly,” he said. “Sometimes people who don’t move quickly enough and [see] the dangers can get caught up and be targeted.” Rastegar was born in the US but lived in Iran until he was 13 years old, when his family was forced to flee the country. “Those are new experiences, new feelings for me personally as an American,” he added.
Senior Parissa Alerasool, a dual US-Iran citizen, described Trump’s order as “a slap in the face. It makes us feel like second class citizens.” Most of the students who commented described it as an often crippling source of anxiety and distraction from school. “I have to stop, take deep breaths,” said Parsa. “Sometimes I’m overcome with emotion. That’s been especially hard in the first few weeks of his administration.”
Despite the temporary restraining order (TRO), the normal bureaucratic mechanisms of immigration law remain unreliable after abruptly grinding to a halt under the ban. Rastegar expressed concern for a friend who moved to the United States from Syria several years ago with a regular immigration visa that will soon expire, leaving her with two options: leave the country or reside here illegally. “The concerning thing is that even absent an [executive order], the administration can do a lot simply with bureaucratic adjustments to make life difficult for people like her—extending times for visa reviews, increasing requirements,” along with other impediments, he said. Parsa said a cousin with an Iranian citizenship was planning on moving to the US in “a month or two” and was beginning to get her documentation in order when the ban derailed the process. Yet, even if she is permitted to enter the country, “The only question now is whether she feels comfortable coming under Trump’s administration, given that her own immediate family all lives in Iran,” said Parsa. “If she got a green card and was safe here, and another ban was issued or relations got worse, she’d have a lot to worry about.”
Reports of airport security disregarding the TRO and the Trump administration’s overt contempt for the judicial system have “sown a lot of terror, confusion, and consternation,” said Rastegar. Border security guards already have wide latitude with the reasonable suspicion standard for those entering the country; even if the order itself is overturned, “I’m afraid the administration can and already has put into place […] a range of policies that allow for interrogation, harassment, detention and expulsion (the latter only in the case of non-citizens) of individuals based solely on the discretion of local agents, with little review or recourse,” he explained. Many Muslims are rightly hesitant to test their luck at the border given the threat of mistreatment, and the Tufts administration has continued to advise international members of the community from the seven countries against travelling outside the United States.
Since its release, the federal government’s statements regarding the ban have been contradictory and confusing, and Tufts Muslim Chaplain Celene Ibrahim said there is “concern that the current administration will go further in implementing policies that unnecessarily target law-abiding Muslims.” Prasant Desai, an immigration lawyer hired by Tufts for counsel on the immigration order, said at a forum on February 3 that there is “no indication that the government has any plan” to deport Muslim immigrants. Nonetheless, students interviewed by the Observer said it’s hard not to fear the worst. “Even if the ban is overturned, with the current perspective of the new president, I am worried that he would deport every citizen of those seven countries in [the] case that a terrorist attack happens in the US,” said the anonymous PhD candidate. Parsa said that the unpredictability of the Trump administration is terrifying. “Sometimes I’ll have a wild thought—what if scenarios,” Parsa said. “And I’ll say it out loud around a friend, like, ‘You don’t think Trump would do xyz to Iranians?’ And I’ll look at them and they’ll be silent because I know they can’t tell me he wouldn’t. I know no one can make a prediction in good faith on what he will or won’t do.”
No previous administration has taken such a heavy-handed and blatantly Islamophobic stance on immigration, but the way many of the Muslim students and faculty describe it, suspicion and contempt of Muslims at the highest levels of government is nothing new. Trump wrote in a statement that “the seven countries named in the Executive Order are the same countries previously identified by the Obama administration as sources of terror,” referring to House Resolution 158, which limited access to visa waivers for immigrants who had traveled to the same seven countries subject to Trump’s current ban. Obama signed it into law in 2015. “It’s hard to speak ill of the past because the present is so bad,” said Rastegar, “but when Trump says ‘my policies are just furthering of Obama’s, or being serious about what Obama was doing,’ [he’s] not entirely lying.” Obama could have vetoed that bill but chose not to, said Rastegar, “so there’s a hole in the dam, as it were, and now it’s broken up into a bigger stream.”
Obama often spoke against Islamophobia in his two terms in office, but a report by Human Rights Watch found that FBI stings have routinely targeted Muslim-American communities and that “human rights violations often occur at every stage of a terrorism prosecution, from investigation through trial and sentencing” in the years since 9/11. Obama also drastically expanded the use of unmanned aerial drones to conduct strikes in non-combat zones throughout the Middle East and Africa, often under equally questionable legal pretenses.
The result, in no small part, is a deep mistrust of Muslims in segments of the population. Sophomore Muna Mohamed, who grew up in a Somali community in Lewiston, Maine, said she was surprised “at the [immigration ban], but not at the sentiment” underlying it. As a Black Muslim living in Maine, one of the Whitest states in America, Mohamed has faced prejudice her whole life. She recalled an episode from her youth when a man threw a pig’s head in her mosque. “If anything, my experiences growing up have equipped me to handle these situations, which is why I probably won’t respond in a ‘Can you believe this happened?!’ way,” she said. People who didn’t grow up “with that additional bigotry” may be reacting more strongly than she is. “People say, ‘This isn’t our America.’ But this is what America’s always been to me.”
Trump has brought the country’s simmering Islamophobia to a boil by validating anti-Muslim prejudice. “People are definitely emboldened by the Trump presidency,” said sophomore Sara Arman, an American citizen of Somali and Yemeni heritage. “And it got to the point where, the other day, I was on the Red Line and this guy came up to me and started questioning me about my religion and scarf.” She said no one intervened, despite her obvious discomfort. Such instances have become more frequent, she added: they used to be “months or years apart.” Mohamed agreed. “My sister will tell me stories all the time of old White men at Starbucks telling her to go back to her country,” she said. “That has peaked a lot more, just because part of Maine was really red over the last election. When I go back to Maine it’s always been like that, but now it’s worse.”
Ghaemi said she has never been particularly aware of politics in the past, but described news of the ban as a wake-up call. “Everything that’s gone on in 2016—I realized how shut off I was,” said Ghaemi. “Since this has happened I’ve been very much keeping track of everything—not just this ban but everything that’s been going on.” Though she has long been politically engaged, said Parsa, the threat posed by Trump’s presidency may affect her plans for after college. “This definitely complicates my vision of the future,” she said. She now may take time off before applying to medical school, as she’d planned to do, in order to focus on politics. Arman, who currently works at the Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center in Boston, echoed that sentiment. “When I thought about what I want to do with my degree, I wanted to go into diplomacy or something like that, but now I feel like I need to do something much more real and maybe continue working at the [Center],” she said, where she’s “working with people who are directly affected by this.”
The new administration’s hostility toward Muslims is gravely concerning, said Mohamed, but to simply despair is counterproductive. “Knowing all the stuff we’ve already been through, we will get through it because we always have,” she said. “If anything it’ll fuel me even more.” Thousands packed into Copley Square in Boston to protest the immigration order on January 29 following demonstrations at numerous airports across the country the night before. “Going to these protests and seeing how everyone’s reacting—it kind of gives me hope for this country,” said Alerasool. Rastegar said he found recent displays of solidarity encouraging. “That’s the countervailing feeling that there’s this really strong basis for an alternative to the future that the administration seems to be trying to foretell,” he said. He suspects Trump’s administration probably didn’t expect the resistance to consolidate the way it has. “They’ve gotten pushback and they’re learning a lesson. The fight is on, and I don’t think they have all the cards.”