The Dangers of Exceptionalism

By Nisrin Elamin

Protest at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), Terminal 4, in New York City, against Donald Trump’s executive order signed in January 2017 banning citizens of seven countries from traveling to the United States (the executive order is also known as “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”). January 28, 2017. Photo by Rhododendrites. CC BY-SA 4.0.

I was one of over 100 people detained at U.S. airports in late January, under President Trump’s executive order barring citizens of Somalia, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya from entering the country. I was doing dissertation research in Sudan, when conversations about a leaked draft of the order prompted me to catch the next flight back to the U.S. There was barely enough time to say goodbye to my parents. After missing a connecting flight in London, I arrived at JFK airport around 20 minutes after immigration officials were notified about the order. In the midst of the chaos that ensued, I was detained along with other green card and visa holders from Iran and Iraq, handcuffed briefly, subjected to an uncomfortable body pat down and questioned extensively, before being released.

As a citizen of Sudan, what happened to me was not unfamiliar. I had never been handcuffed or body searched, but I had been held and questioned many times before when re-entering the U.S. on student and work visas. What made this particular incident exceptional is that I was traveling as a green-card holder with the right to enter the U.S. at anytime—or so I thought. In the end, I was let in. Some of the people who were detained with and after me, however—some also with green cards—were deported back to where they had started their journeys.

The Future of Syria – Birth registration and statelessness.” A young mother crosses the border from Syria and becomes a refugee. She carries her one-month-old son, Hamid. “Since he was born there has been non-stop bombing every day.” By UNHCR / S. Rich / April 2013. CC BY-NC 2.0.

It saddens and perplexes me that my own story gained media attention, when thousands of people fleeing violence and political persecution, many of whom waited for 2 years to receive U.S. visas, were either deported or told they could not board their planes. In the days that followed, more stories of researchers, PhD students, and doctors who were detained or turned back at airports began to surface. In many cases, their accounts put a human face to the injustice and arbitrariness of this travel ban and helped galvanize the academic community, in particular, to take a stand. Indeed, in their lawsuit against the travel ban, Washington State and Minnesota cited the detrimental effects on their universities, which the 9th circuit court of appeals repeated in their approval of the temporary restraining order against the ban.

However, we should reject the notion that these unlawful detentions and deportations are particularly unjust or exceptional because they also affect academics and medical doctors whose labor is somehow more valuable than that of, say, a construction or farm worker. Nor should our outrage be greater simply because this order affects those who hold legal documents to enter and stay in the U.S. Instead this particular moment in history demands that we think about who does and does not have the right to feel safe here in the United States. Do refugees and undocumented people, for instance, have the right to feel safe and welcome in the communities they help build and sustain? Are indigenous activists who are protecting their sacred lands entitled to feel safe and protected? Do people of color have the right to feel safe and shielded by the law in their interactions with law enforcement officers? Are the working poor in this country entitled to living wages and to that feeling of security that comes with being able to take care of loved ones? Can our country truly be safe if some people living within its borders do not feel, and perhaps have never felt, safe and secure?

Two days before the executive order I was detained under came into effect, the Secure Border Fence and Immigration Enforcement Improvement order was signed. The order authorizes, among other things, the construction of more detention facilities along the U.S. southern border and empowers state and local law enforcement personnel to perform the functions of immigration officers, thereby legalizing racial profiling in determining people’s immigration status. In recent years, we have seen an escalation of deportations and immigrant detentions in this country. Over 2.5 million people were deported[1] and tens of thousands of women, men and children detained, during the Obama administration alone.[2]

This 2011 photo comes from the second national wave of Operation Cross Check, a deportation effort by ICE. By U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Department of Homeland Security). U.S. Government Works.

As it stands, this order will likely intensify the criminalization and incarceration of undocumented people. There are already multiple reports of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids in different cities around the country. Similarly, the travel ban signed on January 27th, although currently suspended, would legalize discrimination based on national origin and authorize immigration officials to bar nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., based on the presumption that they pose a threat to national security. The ban effectively criminalizes citizens of African and Middle Eastern countries in which U.S. and European foreign policies and military interventions have contributed directly to instability and violence.

We cannot talk about these two orders in isolation because they are interlinked, both in the ways that they are shaping immigration policy and enforcement and in terms of the effects they will have on immigrant and refugee families and communities. Nor can we remove these orders from the broader historical context in which they emerged. This is a context in which black lives are criminalized and endangered, and in which refugees and migrants fleeing war, poverty and political persecution are being refused entry into the very countries that once colonized them.

As we grapple as academics as to how to respond to these inhumane executive orders, we must draw such connections and contextualize our analysis of them within the broader histories of xenophobia and white supremacy in the U.S., as well as in Europe.

It is encouraging to see universities take a stand against these orders and commit to becoming sanctuary campuses for their students and workers. As we move forward, universities have an opportunity to engage with local communities as well, where people have been organizing for immigrant rights and racial justice for decades. As academics we must ask how we can support and learn from the work that they are already doing to create safer, more just communities where all of us all may live and thrive.

nisrin-profile-picNisrin Elamin is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Stanford University. Her research focuses on foreign land acquisitions and on community resistance to land dispossessions in central Sudan. She is a Sudanese citizen and a permanent resident of the United States.

[1] Denvir, Daniel. “Obama Created a Deportation Machine. Soon It Will Be Trump’s,” The Guardian, November, 21 2016. Last accessed February 11, 2017.

[2] National Immigrant Justice Center.

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