When I first met Rami, I could tell that he was overwhelmed. For the last few months, he and his staff at the Iraqi Community Center of Washington (ICCW) have been struggling to address the local impacts of the Trump administration’s executive order barring travel from six Muslim-majority countries to the United States. We met at the ICCW offices a few miles south of Seattle. It was my first time visiting the organization and I was grateful for Rami’s time. I arrived in the late afternoon and the office was bustling with activity. During our hour-long conversation, Rami described the ban as an urgent issue.
Initially, the Trump administration had included Iraq in its travel ban. This was a devastating moment for the community, Rami explained. The restrictions not only blocked Iraqi refugees awaiting resettlement from entering the United States, but also divided families who were already legal residents. The ban also left Iraqis who supported the United States during the war in a particularly vulnerable state. Many Iraqis risked their lives working with the United States in Iraq, Rami explained. Prohibiting their entry amounts to a death sentence in their country of origin.
When the Trump administration removed Iraq from the list, however, the challenges didn’t end. According to Rami, most Iraqis remain fearful about traveling to visit family abroad. Despite the revised ban, they believe the administration may still prevent Iraqis from leaving or returning to the United States. Perhaps more importantly, the ban has heightened local anxieties about being visibly Arab and Muslim. After Donald Trump’s election, Rami explained, Iraqis grew increasingly fearful on American streets. Many do not want to ride the bus or train; they worry that their legibility as Muslims will make them vulnerable to attacks by Americans emboldened by Trump’s anti-Muslim politics. For this reason, Rami said, Iraqi families are avoiding public spaces as much as possible. Some parents want their daughters to stop wearing the hijab for fear of their safety. Others are considering leaving the United States for Canada. As signifiers of what right-wing media and liberal Islamophobes consider the “Muslim menace,” hijabs, beards, and other so-called Muslim markers have become precarious practices for the Iraqi community.
The concerns Rami expressed about Iraqis in the United States were felt in the broader Arab community as well. In my conversations with Rita, an Arab-American advocate for refugees and founder of the Salaam Cultural Museum (SCM) in Seattle, I learned that the uncertainties surrounding travel to and from the United States weigh heavily on this community. Since 9/11, the SCM and a broad network of attorneys, nonprofit organizations, and private citizens have been working to address the vulnerability of Arab migrants, refugees, and citizens. In addition to legal advice and pro bono support, the network provides financial assistance for families struggling through the resettlement process. According to Rita, President Trump’s travel ban has been a major source of chaos and fear in the Arab community. Many Arab families have called the SCM’s twenty-four-hour hotline with questions about their legal status and travel prerogatives. Others have more immediate concerns about their ability to return to the country. After the first ban, Rita explained, some families abroad could not return to the United States. Unclear about the exact rules of the ban, airlines were rejecting passengers even if they had permanent residency. In one case, Rita used her contacts at the U.S. embassy to assist a family stuck in Jordan. Another case involved a Syrian family whose relatives were unable to leave Turkey. Until district courts suspended the administration’s order, members of this family were stuck overseas, unable to join their relatives in the United States.
The travel ban has also impacted Rita’s international work. Every forty-five days since 2012, the SCM has led medical missions to Jordan and Greece to provide medical care for refugees. The missions bring aid packages and trained volunteers, including Arab-American doctors and nurses. Since the ban, though, Rita had to suspend the missions for the first time. “We just sent $150,000 in medical supplies to Jordan and now we have to stop our missions,” she told me. Arab volunteers are fearful about traveling while the ban is in place. They worry that they’ll be blocked from returning because of their Arab identity and roots in the Middle East. According to Rita, this threat is real. One Syrian-born doctor had difficulty traveling abroad. Despite living in the United States for thirty years as a naturalized citizen, he was almost denied the chance to travel and his phones were temporarily confiscated. Worse still, Rita told me that two Syrian doctors are currently under deportation orders even though they reside legally in the United States. Without volunteers, the SCM cannot continue medical treatment or the distribution of aid packages. Until the legality of the ban is determined later this year by the U.S. Supreme Court, the SCM’s work will have to wait.
Stories like Rami and Rita’s are not entirely new or unique. Since the Trump administration issued the first iteration of its travel ban in January 2017, the media has reported a range of stories that underscore the injustices of the policy. Whether through the pain of a divided Somali family or the frustrations of Afghan girls trying to get to a robotics competition, these accounts reveal the disruptive and often invisible effects of the Trump administration’s efforts to, in their words, protect the homeland. These stories illustrate how the ostensible goals of national security work at the expense of those whom it constitutes as potential threats by limiting their opportunities and complicating their most intimate social relations. Such impacts were made clear to me during my discussions with several Iranian students at the University of Washington. According to them, the inclusion of Iran in the ban has not only restricted their educational opportunities but also furthered their alienation from friends, family, and American society.
Take Fatima, who is a dual citizen of Canada and Iran conducting research on Iranian society. Given the ban, she fears that traveling to Iran might prevent her return to the United States after completing her research. Moreover, the Trump administration’s growing hostility toward Iran has stopped Fatima from leaving the United States at all. Even though she’s a Canadian citizen, she told me that she fears her Iranian identity will be used to prohibit her from reentering the United States. This means that Fatima can’t visit her family in Iran or in Canada. What Fatima describes as Trump’s irrationality and belligerence means that she has to take things day by day. “I’m thinking of various plan Bs right now,” she explained. Like Fatima, Mina is also uncertain about her educational prospects. An advanced doctoral student working in Morocco, she came to the United States on a student visa. Since the ban was issued, she hasn’t left the country and is fearful of doing so. This not only means that Mina cannot return to her fieldsite in Morocco, but also that she cannot visit her family in Iran. Right now, she told me, she is living with perpetual insecurity.
When a third student, Maryam, and I spoke about the ban, she also emphasized its alienating effects. A doctoral student midway through her program, Maryam told me that the first executive order inspired her to support local protests and volunteer with organizations defending the rights of migrants and refugees. But as the struggle to block the ban continued, she began to feel increasingly isolated. Her parents had been trying to visit her in the United States but were unable to get a visa. Because of the ban, Maryam didn’t want to travel abroad to see them and risk being denied re-entry. The inability to see her family and her sense of marginalization as an Iranian citizen plunged her into a deep depression. “I came to the United States to study because I thought it was a free country,” she explained. Today, Maryam is no longer sure. When I asked her about the Supreme Court’s review of the ban later this year, she said that she’s uncertain about what will happen. For now, she is waiting to see what the Court decides. But if the ban is upheld, she told me that she is prepared to abandon her education in the United States altogether. She’d rather return to Iran than live in Trump’s America.
Although Rami, Rita, and the Iranian students whom I have featured here point to different dimensions of the travel ban, their accounts nonetheless share common themes of disruption, alienation, and fear. More than a mere legal issue, the Trump administration’s anti-Muslim politics have intensified a social experience of vulnerability lived by those whom this administration seeks to mark as Other. This October, the Supreme Court will decide on the future of the ban. When that day comes, those who have been affected hope to see the wheels of justice turn in their favor. Until then, we must continue to document and circulate the accounts of those who are living with the material and affective consequences of an administration committed to shoring up demographic purity at the expense of the most vulnerable.
I have used pseudonyms to protect the identity of some individuals in this essay.