Programs Host Emergency Town Hall on Recent Immigration and Travel Ban

February 8, 2017 by Aislinn McNiece

The Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) and the African Studies Program hosted a Town Hall meeting on February 2 to give support, resources, and answers to a variety of questions to students, faculty, and staff affected by the recent executive orders banning immigration to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries.

The Director of CCAS, Osama Abi-Mershed, opened the event with a reading of the CCAS statement on the immigration executive order:

“We assure our students, scholars, staff, and board members that we will continue to stand together as a community of mutual respect and care, and to oppose those who would question our shared commitment to intellectual freedom, social justice, and human dignity. With your support, the CCAS will remain an all-inclusive academic home, where all enjoy equal opportunity to learn and reflect without restrictions,” said Abi-Mershed.

Joel Hellman, dean of the SFS, also gave a brief statement reiterating that SFS too was founded as a community to foster an understanding of globalization on the principles of service, respect, and equality.

“From my vantage point, what I want to assure you is this is not just an issue for one of our programs, this is not just an issue for one part of the world—this is something that really goes to the very core of the School of Foreign Service, the principles we were created for, and the principles we have been defending for nearly a century. We really are in an extraordinary moment in the global political landscape…and it is our moment to engage and to move the dialogue forward,” said Dean Hellman.

Dean Hellman presented two concerns that the immigration ban raises for the SFS: first, concerns for impacted students, staff, and faculty; second, concerns for the integrity of the values of the school itself. In regards to the former, Dean Hellman explained that the administration of the school is working to mobilize legal and counseling support and information services to those affected. In regards to the values of the SFS, Hellman said, “We have a special responsibility as the oldest school of international affairs in the country and in Washington, D.C. to use this as a platform for restating, expanding, and engaging those values.”

Director for the African Studies Program, Scott Taylor, read a statement from the African Studies Association, with which the Georgetown African Studies Program is affiliated: “As an association whose central mission is dedicated to understanding the complexity of the African continent and promoting academic exchange between scholars of the African continent and the United States, we deplore the arbitrary and unwarranted application of the executive order, which has a significant impact on the people of Africa and scholars who study the continent.”  

Two panels followed, including experts on immigration law, Muslims in the United States, and refugee resettlement. Panelists discussed their own experiences with the immigration ban so far and offered advice and resources for anyone affected by the ban.

Panel Offers Resources for Affected Community Members

The first panel featured Robert McCaw, Director of the Government Affairs Department of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR); Claudia Cubas, Senior Program Director of the Detained Adult Program Capital Area Immigrant Rights Coalition (CAIR Coalition), and Yolanda Rondon, a staff attorney with the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

McCaw, of CAIR, explained that the executive order suspends immigration for at least 90 days from seven Muslim-majority countries, and constitutes a four-month refugee ban, including refugees who have already cleared the vetting system but have yet to arrive in the United States. He discussed implications for green card holders, citing instances of legal permanent residents abandoning their status by signing the I-407 form while going through U.S. immigration.

Additionally, some citizens and non-citizens who are Muslim but not from the seven banned countries have reportedly been subject to secondary screenings. McCaw reminded any citizens undergoing any racial or religious profiling that they have the right to remain silent even at the U.S. border; non-citizens are only required to answer questions about their immigration status and travels, and  also have the right to an attorney.

Cubas, attorney from the CAIR Coalition, was present at Dulles airport on the first weekend that the executive order was in place. She said that U.S. airports were chaotic on that weekend, “the traffic at Dulles has dissipated, but now the problem isn’t so much at Dulles—it is now abroad. Now we are getting calls of people wanting help and assistance because they are stranded abroad. The problem we’re seeing with that population is that they do have valid documents issued by our government, but they cannot board a plane because there has been an advisory distributed to all airlines to only admit some people.” She advised anyone potentially affected by the ban to refrain from travel and plan ahead if they cannot.

Rondon, attorney from the ADC, addressed reports that the list of seven banned countries may expand, and that the 90-day ban is feasibly indefinite, as the ban requires the countries named to meet certain security standards that may be difficult to adopt for governments in conflict, such as in Syria and Yemen.

Rondon advised anyone who is not a legalized citizen to refrain from advertising their immigration or citizenship status on social media; to make sure a family member or trusted person has a copy of green cards; don’t use a passport, even in domestic travel (use a state I.D.); and, finally, file for an advanced parole document if international travel is necessary.

For more advice, affected people may turn to the ADC toolkit, updated regularly with information regarding the executive order and actions people may take to protect themselves.

Panel Reflects on Implications of Ban for Individuals

The second panel featured Abiha Bilgrami, member of the D.C. Justice for Muslims Coalition; Betsy Fisher, Policy Director of the International Refugee Assistance Program (IRAP); and Mamadou Samba, Director of the D.C. Mayor’s Office of African Affairs (MOAA).

Bilgrami said that although she is “scared of the people emboldened by Trump’s victory as a rationale for bigoted beliefs,” she has witnessed “overwhelming support of allies” to the Muslim community in the United States. Fisher agreed, but cited concerns that the problems might no longer be in the local Muslim community but in Muslim communities abroad.

For example, she told the story of two clients who served the U.S. military in the Iraq war who had gone through months of screening before obtaining visas to enter the U.S. Their legal statuses changed when the executive order was signed while they were in route to America. People abroad, like these clients and other Iraqi and Afghan military allies and their families, people seeking medical care, and refugees, cannot be admitted despite urgent need.

Finally, Samba, who directs the D.C. Mayor’s Office of African Affairs, which serves about 18,000 immigrants in the D.C. area, voiced concerns about the protection of religious freedoms going forward, but advised people not to be afraid.

“As a Muslim, you should not feel intimidated. It’s okay for you to believe what you believe in, so let’s not be intimidated to say that we are Muslims. Let’s not be intimidated to practice our faith. The other point is advocacy…be engaged locally. It’s the most important thing. The President of the United States is one thing, but locally, where you live, you have your mayors, your council members, your A.C. commissioners, your senators—let’s get them involved, and get them to be on the right side of history,” said Samba.

Georgetown University released a statement in support of its international students containing university resources for anybody affected by the travel ban. The University asks that any students who experience an immigration emergency, please call the Office of Global Services or GUPD if OGS is closed. Visit this website for more information.