May 6, 2017, marked the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act (repealed in 1943), the first set of laws restricting immigration to the United States on the basis of race and nationality. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Act and established that the president and Congress have plenary power over who may or may not enter the United States. This precedent paved the way for the federal government to create, in 2002, the highly controversial National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. This special registration program required men (and boys over 16) from 25 predominantly Muslim countries and North Korea to report to local immigration offices for fingerprinting and questioning based on religion, gender, and national origin.
I was a young attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund when the George W. Bush administration orchestrated a series of deportation programs that targeted South Asian, Muslim, and Arab communities with secret detention, special registration, and an absconder initiative. While the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) litigated the impact cases, a handful of us believed in a “community lawyering” model, which meant practicing law with a multipronged strategy while building community power and leadership. We teamed up with community-based organizations such as Families for Freedom and Islamic Circle of North America and worked with local mosques and community leaders. I wrote about this work in the 2004 Clearinghouse Review article linked below, “Frontline Lawyering: Defending the Attack on Immigrant Communities After September 11.” Since then, larger social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter and “DREAMers,” have emerged, demonstrating the power of community when we organize around our different struggles.
Donald J. Trump’s election as president reminds those of us who identify as immigrants or people of color that America was built on slavery, racism, and white supremacy. No matter how many steps are made toward progress and inclusion, those who are not white are considered the “other” or “foreign.” Today exclusionary policies apply not only to Muslims (see, e.g., President Trump’s executive order on immigration, commonly known as the “Muslim ban” or the “travel ban”) but also to Latinos as the president makes good on his threat to build a border wall and deport “bad hombres.” The rhetoric of the Trump campaign and presidency demonizes an entire community. Muslims being characterized as terrorists after 9/11 is analogous to Mexicans being described as “rapists” and “drug dealers”—except that the term “Mexicans” is a stand-in for all noncitizens or immigrants. Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” was easily read as making America white or culturally pure again.
Shortly after President Trump’s inauguration, a few of us reminisced over the 9/11 days, and we agreed that the public then paid little attention to how President George W. Bush’s policies affected Muslims. We contrasted that with the outrage and resistance seen since Trump’s inauguration. The 2017 Women’s March alone, in response to Trump’s misogynistic messages, was likely the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. In New York City the Women’s March drew almost half a million protesters, packed like sardines over more than 15 blocks. I marched with Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund staff and alumni holding signs that reflected our many identities: “Show Up For Refugees,” “Nasty Woman,” “Don’t Mourn, Organize.”
On January 27, 2017, President Trump issued the last of three immigration-related executive orders, the so-called Muslim or travel ban, which proposed to ban entry for 90 days for immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somali, Yemen, and Sudan as well as indefinitely ban Syrian refugees. The next day massive protests erupted at airports around the country as Muslims were barred from entering the United States. I headed to JFK International Airport in the late afternoon to join the protests. Earlier in the day, ACLU had filed a class action lawsuit, and one of the ACLU attorneys called me inside the terminal as they needed more experienced immigration attorneys on the ground. By evening, mass protests almost shut down various international airports around the country.
This movement building and community resistance supported the courts’ pushback on President Trump’s executive order. On January 28 a federal court in New York blocked a part of the executive order. Since then, the courts have halted both the initial and the revised version of his executive order on immigration. The synergy among the courts, the public, social media, and lawyers contributed to the resistance against his discriminatory executive orders. This was unimaginable during the post-9/11 period; the public never took to the streets in any similar way to challenge Bush’s post-9/11 policies.
While challenges to President Trump’s travel ban executive order have had some success, the executive order on the interior enforcement of immigration laws remains unchallenged. Unlike the Bush administration’s largely unnoticed targeting of Muslims, Trump’s policies have wrought chaos and sowed fear in every immigrant community across the United States. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers have descended on courthouses and raided homes. They arrested an undocumented woman as she sought an order of protection. Schools and churches, once thought be to be safe, are vulnerable as rumors spread that ICE officers are waiting outside to conduct arrests. Young people with benefits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program are fearful that they would be stripped of their work authorization overnight. Asylum seekers are no longer safe even when picking up asylum decisions at immigration offices.
President Trump has been in office for only four months, and yet it feels like four years. While public awareness of immigration issues has improved since I wrote the Clearinghouse Review article below, we have a long way to go and a lot of work ahead of us if we want to continue to push back on his discriminatory immigration policies.