Immigration ban reveals a nation divided

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The Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island — Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

They planned to visit the Statue of Liberty. Randy Olsen and Zaineb Al-Qazwini met in Singapore in 2011 and married. After a two-year application process, Al-Qazwini, an Iraqi citizen, was approved for a green card in December. Their first stop was to be New York, where U.S.-born Olsen hoped to show his wife and daughter Ellis Island.

But when they awoke on Jan. 28, years of planning unraveled. President Donald Trump had signed an executive order on immigration that suspended travel for citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations, including Iraq. Olsen, who works in cybersecurity, and Al-Qazwini, a cancer researcher, talked with the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as U.S. embassy officials in Singapore. But as late as Tuesday, no one could give them a clear answer about what would happen if they boarded a plane for a 25-hour flight to the United States.

Randy Olsen, 39, and his wife, Zaineb Al-Qazwini, 33, stand with their 2-year-old daughter in this undated family photo. They do not know if they will be able to move from Singapore to the United States, despite the fact that his wife has held a green card since December, Olsen said. Photo courtesy of Randy Olsen.

Randy Olsen, 39, and his wife, Zaineb Al-Qazwini, 33, stand with their two-year-old daughter in this undated family photo. They do not know if they will be able to move from Singapore to the United States, despite the fact that his wife has held a green card since December, Olsen said.

While Olsen’s life plans were falling apart, Bill Davis, a 64-year-old veteran of the Army Reserves, woke up on the other side of the globe feeling safer. An insurance salesman in Clanton, Alabama, Davis says his worldview changed after the attacks on September 11th, 2001, and again when the Islamic State militant group claimed responsibility for the March 2016 attacks in Brussels, at Belgium’s international airport.

The fear of terrorism follows Davis everywhere he goes. Whenever he finds himself in a crowd — whether he’s watching the Auburn Alabama Tigers play football or standing in the checkout line at the grocery store — he gets nervous.

Davis says when people yield to fears borne out of terrorist threats and attacks “that’s taking away freedoms from us.”

Only two weeks old, and now halted by a temporary court-ordered stay, President Donald Trump’s executive order banning Syrian refugees and blocking travelers from seven Muslim-majority nations created chaos at airports and left thousands of travelers in limbo.

But beyond the immediate headlines, the order has revealed a deep divide in how many Americans view the delicate balance between personal security and civil liberty. On one side: those who think a rejection of immigrants and refugees contradicts the values of a country they say was built by people looking for a better life. On the other: those who think immigration leaves the nation vulnerable to terrorism — a threat that hasn’t been adequately addressed.

Bill Davis, 64, of Clanton, Alabama, said President Donald Trump's executive order on immigrants and refugees makes him feel safer and "truly blessed to have a leader who gets it." Photo courtesy of Bill Davis.

Bill Davis, 64, of Clanton, Alabama, said President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigrants and refugees makes him feel safer and “truly blessed to have a leader who gets it.” Photo courtesy of Bill Davis.

Olsen, who was born and raised in Northern California, says the order made him question what it means to be an American.

“America projects an image of freedom and tolerance. That’s what it sells itself as to the international community. I represented that. I voiced that,” said Olsen, an American living abroad for six years. “Recent actions taken have put a cloud over that statement for me.”

Davis has a completely different view. In his town of nearly 9,000 residents, his neighbors are “uneasy because of our new world with terrorism,” he said.

“We are truly blessed to have a leader who gets it,” Davis wrote to PBS NewsHour.

Brandice Nelson wasn’t always as impressed by Trump as Davis. The 25-year-old in Waco, Texas, didn’t vote for Trump in November, but she will say this: He keeps his campaign promises.

Nelson, an African-American museum curator who considers herself politically conservative, thinks the U.S. needs more vetting for refugees and immigrants from “countries we’re not really confident about.”

“It’s not that we don’t care about the people who legitimately get here and make a better life for themselves,” she said, ”but in the interest of our safety, we can’t just fling open the doors.”

“It’s not that we don’t care about the people who legitimately get here and make a better life for themselves, but in the interest of our safety, we can’t just fling open the doors.”

That doesn’t mean Nelson thinks the government should be invasive — “I don’t think we should be going through people’s underwear drawers,” she says. But she grew up in a U.S. military family in Frankfurt, Germany, during the Persian Gulf War. She remembers the fear, her father checking for bombs under the family vehicle each time they wanted to take it for a drive.

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But Nelson does think refugees and immigrants need to be properly vetted. She doesn’t understand why opponents are pushing back against this plan, pointing to former President Barack Obama’s 2011 call to bolster requirements for Iraqis requesting special visas.

A Department of Justice attorney laid out a similar argument Tuesday before a panel of Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judges, defending the ban against a lawsuit from the states of Washington and Minnesota. Experts have pointed out Mr. Obama’s 2011 action is quite different than Mr. Trump’s recent order. But defenders of the ban regularly draw comparisons between them.

The judges ruled late Thursday that the halt on Mr. Trump’s immigration ban would remain in place, a move that drew speculation about a showdown at the Supreme Court. But late Friday, the Washington Post reported that White House officials said they would not challenge the appellate court ruling, but instead may rewrite the order. In their ruling, the judges rejected the DOJ request to reinstate the ban on multiple grounds, saying “The Government has pointed to no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the Order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States.”

In response, the president tweeted, “SEE YOU IN COURT, THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!”

The Trump administration is digging in its heels to defend the ban, just as Joanne Lin expected. She serves as legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit against the order hours after it was signed.

“This is completely contrary to America, the land of the free, a place where the Statue of Liberty has long been a beacon,” Lin said.

But signing this executive order into reality is precisely why people supported Mr. Trump in this first place, said JuanPablo Andrade, who serves as an executive adviser on the Trump administration’s National Diversity Coalition. He said the temporary ban, or restriction as he preferred to call it, on travel is necessary to ensure that the United States “is letting the right people into this country.”

“The administration’s plan is not to halt anything,” he said. “We want to continue with everything that we’ve been doing, everything that Mr. Trump has promised and is the reason why people elected him.”

The ACLU and the two states mounting a legal challenge to the immigration ban think it treats a group of people unfairly based on religion. Mr. Trump’s executive order was “not being executed well,” Nelson said, but she disagrees with claims that the order is in its nature discriminatory.

“I’m a black American, I don’t feel like this is something being directed at people with brown skin,” Nelson said. “I don’t think it’s intended to be racist.”

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But the order’s blunt nature doesn’t account for how immigrants, refugees and those working around the world for the government are actually helping the United States, says Dina Tariq.

Nine years ago, Tariq, now 36, arrived in the United States as an Iraqi refugee. Before she left her home country, she worked as a freelance journalist for television news outlet Al-Huriah in Baghdad and assisted USAID projects. But after others learned she was helping Americans, her name was put on a list and she received threats, Tariq said.

Every day on her way to work in Baghdad, Tariq said she would look at her mother before walking out the door, knowing it could be the last time she saw her.

Tariq got out. Her parents didn’t.

“I risked my life to support democracy in Iraq, and [this is] how they’re paying me back for that? These orders are separating families.”

For nearly a decade, U.S. officials have rejected each of her parents’ five visa requests to join her in the United States, said Tariq, who lives in Fort Washington, Maryland, where she and her husband raise their 2-year-old daughter. Her parents missed Tariq’s college graduation and the birth of their granddaughter.

With Trump’s executive order, Tariq said she doesn’t know when she’ll see her parents again. Her father is in poor health and must travel back and forth to Lebanon to see a cardiologist. Bursting into tears, Tariq said she doesn’t know what to do to help her parents. The worry makes her own heart race, she said.

“I risked my life to support democracy in Iraq, and [this is] how they’re paying me back for that?” Tariq said. “These orders are separating families.”

It has also caused chaos and confusion for those who have been citizens of the U.S. for years. The day after the ban went into effect, Sylvia Ettefagh, a 57-year-old fisheries biologist from Wrangell, Alaska, landed at Los Angeles International Airport after 10 days of bird-watching, snorkeling, hiking, fishing in Costa Rica — and not paying attention to the news. Ettefagh — who has an American mother, an Iranian father and dual citizenship — and her husband were trying to make a final connection back home to Seattle.

A global entry traveler, Ettefagh stood before a border security official where she handed over her U.S. passport, submitted fingerprints and got her photo taken. But when Ettefagh didn’t produce her Iranian passport (she never carries it), the officer said she needed more screening.

Despite her protests, security officials separated her from her husband. Ettefagh said she still had no idea what was going on when the agent who guided her to the airport’s immigration room told her, “You can thank Trump for this.”

When the door opened before her, Ettefagh saw more than 50 people crowded into the room with only space to stand. Some people told Ettefagh they had waited there for six hours. She wondered where her husband was and worried they would miss their flight. She demanded answers to questions — “How long is this going to take? What’s going on here?” — and heard no response.

After an hour, an agent took her passport aside, sat before a computer monitor and then released her 10 minutes later. The agent gave no explanation for Ettefagh’s detention: “If I’d known, I guess I’d be madder.”

She didn’t get answers until she walked out of the immigration room and beyond baggage claim when she saw protesters and lawyers with signs written in Farsi, English, French and German. A lawyer approached her, and she’s now seeking legal action.

“We will either see the great United States of America or the divided States of America.”

She has since talked with her friends back in southeast Alaska, including some who are ardent Trump supporters, and she said they told her what happened to her was wrong and “that isn’t what Trump wanted.”

But before Mr. Trump put his name on the order, his administration was duty-bound to think it through, she says. The cost of not doing that has been high, because “you’re not only hurting people who haven’t done anything and don’t deserve that. But you’re also making your front line workers look like a—–s because they have to interpret it as they come along.”

The executive order felt like shooting from the hip, Ettefagh said, and that’s not what progressive, civilized nations do.

Davis can agree the administration made some mistakes. For one, the new executive order shouldn’t block people with green cards from entering the United States.

“They … didn’t think through the qualified people,” he said.

But he said he admires Mr. Trump’s pace “before he had had time to kinda sorta vet his order.”

“We’re going to have more terrorism in this country if we don’t” act quickly, he said.

Mr. Trump has used that argument to defend his executive order, on Twitter and in meetings as he enters his third week as president. He told law enforcement officials Wednesday he felt “security is at risk.” And he criticized court cases, later adding “they’re taking away our weapons, one by one.”

Some people are more worried, though, about what threats they’ll now face within their own communities. Tariq knows people who arrived as immigrants in the United States four decades ago, who raised their children in a nation where “their rights, religions and lives are protected by the law,” who now fear for their safety, she says. Under Trump’s leadership, Tariq foresees two paths for this nation’s future: opportunity for all people or “hate, war and crises.”

“Right now, we’re in a total state of limbo.”

“We will either see the great United States of America or the divided States of America,” she said.

For others, the confusion continues. “We’re taking steps back with these executive orders. We used to talk about stuff. What is this? A monarchy?” Olsen said. Almost every minute of the last two weeks Olsen and Al-Qazwini have wrestled with what to do. Should they make the journey? Can they make it?

“Right now, we’re in a total state of limbo,” Olsen said, as his daughter slept near him. He and his wife had waited anxiously to hold her physical green card, which arrived earlier this week.

When Olsen awoke to learn the federal appeals court’s order on Friday, he was elated: “What great news to wake up to in the morning!”

But the order is temporary with no guarantee. Olsen and Al-Qazwini are moving cautiously as they pack up their lives and prepare to start anew in the United States.

When thinking about that day at the airport, Ettefagh said she just wants more people to talk about how policy changes might affect everyday lives. So did, Nelson in Texas, Davis in Alabama, Tariq in Maryland and Olsen and Al-Qazwini in Singapore.

Maybe, as the debate goes on, they’ll hear each other.

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