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Faculty teach-in highlights historical implications of immigration ban

Faculty members from multiple disciplines contextualize President Trump's recent policies in annual teach-in

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, February 9, 2017

When Sreemati Mitter, assistant professor of Middle Eastern history and international and public affairs, met with Syrian refugees in France, they told her, “Put yourself in my shoes. What would you do if you were me? What would you do if this was your story? Where would you go?”

The Middle East studies department held a faculty teach-in Wednesday at 85 Waterman Street on President Donald Trump’s immigration ban. Five faculty members from various disciplines discussed the ban in the context of ongoing refugee crises, widespread xenophobia and international human rights law.

Nations are not allowed to discriminate against refugees, including by nationality, during the asylum process, said Arnulf Becker Lorca, visiting lecturer in the international relations program. However, Trump could still discriminate against citizens of the seven banned countries who do not qualify as refugees without violating international law, he said. Under this law, many who are affected by the ban are not considered refugees because people who flee their home countries for economic or public health reasons cannot receive refugee designation.

The ban is “undemocratic and challenges the core values of what this country stands for,” Beshara Doumani P’17, director of Middle East studies, told The Herald. “I share the concern and outrage that has been expressed all across this country and across the globe.”

Mitter began the teach-in by sharing her experiences helping Syrian refugees with French asylum requests. One profferred explanation for Trump’s ban is that immigrants pose a security threat to the countries that grant them asylum, she said. “It’s just not true because the people who are coming are women and children. … Single men, even families with men, are not getting accepted,” she told The Herald.

In her work with refugees, Mitter met three women and a baby girl who, in the course of traveling from Syria to Iraq, had lost all three men in their family. “When they arrived in France … they were completely traumatized, and they too, wouldn’t talk very much about their journey,” she said.

American history is steeped in systematic racial oppression, beginning with Christopher Columbus’s atrocities against indigenous people to recent policies against Mexicans, said Matthew Gutmann, professor of anthropology.

Narges Bajoghli, postdoctoral research associate at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, also argued that Trump’s ban is not a new phenomenon in the United States. Trump’s ban draws on the history of “the War on Terror after 9/11 as well as the targeting of Muslim and Middle Eastern communities with the Patriot Act going forward,” she said. The United States had a Muslim registry — the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System — that was created by former President George W. Bush before it was subsequently dismantled by former President Barack Obama in 2011. NSEERS registered males who were over 16 years old from over 20 predominantly Muslim countries, Bajoghli said. In 2015, Obama prevented travelers from the immigration ban’s list of seven countries from qualifying for the Visa Waiver Program, she said.

In addition to delving into American history, many speakers contextualized current U.S. policy against the backdrop of rising Islamophobia around the world. Bhrigupati Singh, assistant professor of anthropology, compared Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Trump. Both are anti-Muslim, lie to the far right and have the image of being successful businessmen, he said.

Trump’s xenophobic nationalism and anti-Islamic rhetoric are also found in Russia, several European countries, South Asia and also surfaced in Canada under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration, Doumani told The Herald. “This is not just a U.S. bubble, so we want to think globally, as a larger phenomenon,” he said.

Those countries who have chosen to welcome refugees find themselves increasingly isolated in a post-Trump era. Nations do not have an obligation to host resettled refugees, Lorca said. Trump could continue to refuse refugees from Australia without violating international law.

But Trump’s ban has galvanized a diverse opposition to the Trump agenda across socioeconomic, ethnic, racial and religious lines, Doumani told The Herald. “This is a very encouraging response from civil society,” he said.

The Middle Eastern American community has mobilized quickly in response by organizing protests, volunteering translation services at airports and leading the legal challenge to the ban, Bajoghli said.

“Trump’s Ban: A Teach-In” is part of an annual teach-in series hosted by the Middle East studies department.