Caught between two worlds: Muslims face election-day anxiety over Trump's travel ban

Caught between two worlds: Muslims face election-day anxiety over Trump's travel ban
In-depth: For Muslims in America and around the world, the 2020 US election could very well determine their life trajectories.
7 min read
03 November, 2020
People protest the Muslim travel ban outside of the US Supreme Court. [Getty]

Vote like your life depends on it, goes the popular election-day slogan. For Muslims in America and around the world, this day could very well determine their life trajectories. 

When will they see their loved ones? Where will they continue their education? Where will they live? 

"If Trump gets re-elected, I will not stay in the US. I can't risk not being able to stay, not able to leave. It's just not worth it not to be able to see my family anymore. I'm really scared," says an Iranian doctor based in Washington, DC, speaking on condition of anonymity because she does not have citizenship and does not want to draw attention to herself. 

She does, however, want to raise awareness of what the Muslim ban means for her and others.

"It's so hard to sit with this question. What am I going to lose? If I stay, I'll lose seeing my family. If I leave, I could lose my PhD," she says, acknowledging that she hasn't left the United States in the past four years for fear of not being able to return due to the Muslim travel ban.

Rawan Bairouti, like many others, has also been separated from her family since the ban was issued. With her family in Syria unable to travel to the US, she has missed weekly family gatherings, milestones like births and weddings, and even her own wedding was reduced to a handful of witnesses - something she had never envisioned for her special day.

It's so hard to sit with this question. What am I going to lose? If I stay, I'll lose seeing my family. If I leave, I could lose my PhD

"My mother-in-law spent the week of our wedding crying. I also cried at my wedding because there were certain people missing that I never thought wouldn't be there on my big day, all because of the ban," says Bairouti.

The Muslim travel ban is based on a series of executive orders that prevents the entry to the United States of citizens from five Muslim-majority countries. After much public resistance to the first two executive orders, it was issued in 2017, a third attempt that quietly took effect after several non-Muslim-majority countries were added to the list, making it difficult to make the legal argument of religious discrimination. 

Read more: For Muslim Americans, Trump has added
fuel to the fire of Islamophobia

The idea dates back to Trump's 2016 election campaign, in which he wanted to appeal to his conservative base with xenophobic promises of a Muslim ban and a Muslim registry. This came alongside policies of family separations of Latin American immigrants at the southern border.

"From the very beginning, we knew what we were dealing with: a racist and opportunistic administration. Getting him out of office has been our priority since day one," says Wa'el Alzayat, CEO of Emgage, a Muslim civic engagement organisation, who was on his first week on the job when the executive order for the ban was signed.

For him, the ban has been a major motivator to work to turn out Muslim voters, which his group and others have done through two million text messages and making a million phone calls, with an estimated 800,000 having already voted in key states.

"The ban represented everything that was wrong with this administration. It was the fire that kept us going." 

It is difficult to quantify the reach of these immigration policies, given their multiplier effects. What is known is that immigration has dropped substantially under Trump as compared with his predecessor. According to the Pew Research Center, the United States has admitted about 76,200 refugees so far under Trump (Jan. 20, 2017, to Sept. 30, 2019) while it admitted nearly 85,000 refugees in the fiscal year 2016 alone, under Obama. 

From the very beginning, we knew what we were dealing with: a racist and opportunistic administration

There has been a nearly 1 percent decrease in new international student enrolment between 2018 and 2019, according to the annual Open Doors report, compiled by the Institute for International Education with the US State Department. And according to the National Foundation for American Policy, legal immigration dropped by 11.5 percent. What might be the most difficult to quantify is the long-term psychological effects of these policies. 

"The travel ban was probably the darkest period of my adult life. I felt depression, anxiety and restlessness. It was really traumatic – the intense feelings of loneliness and powerlessness, not knowing what it all meant. It felt like life just came crashing down," says the Iranian doctor.  

Bairouti has also felt the impact of the ban on her daily life since it was implemented. 

"The fact that there is a Muslim ban makes us more of a target," says Bairouti. "The implication is that people from the banned countries are dangerous and should not be allowed in. But I'm in, therefore people will have prejudice against me. This affects our daily lives, meeting new people, working, etcetera. We have to work extra hard to be accepted."  

Read more: The Arab and Muslim candidates fighting to transform American politics

While Muslim residents in the US are working to be accepted, they are also - as American residents - often in the position of representing America. The Iranian doctor often finds herself defending the country where she chose to pursue her PhD, and a country that she fears will lose its credibility because of its "bullying" policies.  

"I have to defend it," she says, going back and forth, sometimes referring to America as "they" and other times as "we."   

"I represent the US. I am a 'we' at times. I definitely feel less and less like that now, sadly."    

Although the Muslim ban itself is relatively new, discriminatory policies in various forms date back to the country's founding. What is different about this is that policies have generally evolved over time to become more inclusive.

The challenge we face as a country is beyond what Muslims are facing. The entire country and the future of our democracy is at a crossroads

Moreover, as a country founded and largely built by immigrants, America is held to a higher standard than other countries that do not claim to owe their success to immigration, or as a beacon of freedom, democracy and opportunity. It is these very ideals that have attracted immigrants over the years, and it is now the assault on these ideals that threaten to reverse America's progress.  

"We're dealing with more than just one executive order," says Hussam Ayloush, Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in California. "The real work is: how can we undo so much of the racial divisions and mistrust the administration has fuelled in our country?"

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He adds, "The challenge we face as a country is beyond what Muslims are facing. The entire country and the future of our democracy is at a crossroads."  

Indeed, the results of the election will undoubtably determine the direction of civil rights – and possibly the democracy – in the United States. The administration, whose immigration policies are largely informed by White House senior advisor Stephen Miller, is reportedly already considering harsher anti-immigration measures, such as legislation, higher standards for work and visitor visas, and withholding grants from sanctuary cities. 

"The Muslim ban really represented in many ways how off-course certain segments of our political establishment have veered. What defines us as Americans is equal protection under the law. We're a pluralistic democracy," says Alzayat. 

"It's really about preserving the uniqueness of or country. Once you lose it, then you lose it. If you really start basing policies based on things other than rational analysis of the issue, and you start basing them on religious or ethnic grounds, then the American experiment ends." 

Brooke Anderson is a freelance journalist covering international politics, business and culture

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews