Grinnell continues to respond to immigration ban

By Lily Bohlke and Mira Braneck
bohlkeli@grinnell.edu & braneckm@grinnell.edu

When Deqa Aden ’18 planned her first trip to the U.S. for a summer program with her best friend, she dreamed of walking across the Golden Gate Bridge and marveling at the lights of Times Square.  She and her friend had prepared the same applications, essays, forms. But after they arrived at the nearest American embassy — in Dijabuti over 800 miles away — there was only one visa available. Even once she made her way to the United Arab Emirates, she was forced to stay in the airport for 30 hours, unable to leave the airport due to her Somali passport.

In her time at the airport, she thought to herself, “What on earth do Somalis do that a 14-year-old girl is a threat?”

Upon finally arriving in the U.S., Aden was detained for an additional seven hours. Because it was her first time visiting America, she had nothing to compare this experience to and did not recognize that others may have easier times getting to the U.S. “This is not what everyone goes through,” Aden said. “This is what Somalis, Muslims go through.”

Following this experience, Aden was not surprised when Donald Trump announced his ban on immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries.  The week after the ban was announced, students took action, holding vigils and direct actions and organizing meetings and panels, including one featuring Aden and two other students: Farah Omer ‘19 and Abdi Yusef ’20.

All three students are from Somaliland, which is considered to be an autonomous state of Somalia and is not recognized by the international community as its own country. This further complicates each of their journeys to and from the states, as they each have to go to Djibouti to obtain American visas as Somalia does not have an American embassy, just as Aden had to in 2011.

Omer wanted to stress that her situation of being in the U.S. greatly differs from that of many of the other individuals who are affected by the ban. “I’m not a refugee … I’m an opportunist,” she said, describing her position as a student. “Sometimes it feels like I don’t legally exist in the geopolitical world They don’t even recognize my government.”

Yusef, a first year, along with the other affected students, is unsure when he will be able to go home. “Because of my religion and my nationality, I cannot go home for breaks.”

Despite the uncertainty of when he will see his family again, he said that he is able to remain somewhat upbeat. “Because of the support and hospitality I have been shown, I am able to stay positive.”

Aden plans to spend her summer her in the U.S. She has had visa trouble in the past, and even with the fate of the ban up in the air, it’s not worth the risk. “It’s very risky, which makes no sense,” she said about her time traveling back and forth before the ban. “A student is a student, no matter what.”

Other students from Muslim majority countries that were not included in the ban feel the effects as well. One student who wished to remain anonymous was not surprised by the ban. “A lot of people in the Muslim community saw this coming,” he said. “When you take out your passport and the customs officers see that you’re from a Muslim place, they treat you differently.”

The student also said that one of his friends directly affected by the ban saw it coming. “He already knew that it was a possibility that he would not be able to go back home the next few years,” he said.

Another student who wished to remain anonymous is an American citizen, but the rest of her family does not have citizenship. Most of her family still lives in the Muslim majority country that her parents left.

“They’re less surprised than we are. … Maybe it’s because we live in a liberal bubble or maybe it’s because we really just didn’t think it was possible,” she said. “It’s been more mainstream — the amount of discrimination in this country towards anybody who’s not a straight white man, and I think that was more evident to them than to us. Which is weird — to have other countries see you better than we see ourselves.”

The support given by the community was somewhat of a double-edged sword for Aden. “The whole community was like, oh my god, I’m so sorry for you, and then it became emotionally draining, and everywhere I went was a constant reminder that I’m banned from the country.”

She did say, however, that she was made to feel welcome. “It’s good, they showed support and how much they care and the fact that we are welcome here,” Aden said.

President Raynard Kington spoke of the administration’s support for the students. “Like many schools, we believe that the fundamental principles are just wrong. We believe that we are in a deeply connected world, and that we can’t and we shouldn’t try to wall ourselves off.”

“I’m from a scientific background, and in the sciences in particular, the potential effect on the scientific enterprise of this country, both in education and research, is really pretty dismal,” Kington said. “We continue to stand by our policy of not providing information unless legally required to do so. I think we have committed to supporting students from the seven countries that were banned and we are prepared to help them financially. … We are certainly figuring out ways of making sure that there are funds for, for example, if the ban is still in place and students need to stay here in the country for the summer… we’ve had local families say that they’d be willing to house students … it’s relatively easy for us to be supportive.”

Many other individuals in the administration are trying to extend this support as well. Maure Smith-Benanti, the Director of Intercultural Affairs, spoke about how to be an ally.

“What it seemed to me, the right thing to do, in the wake of the news that has a big impact on our students and faculty and staff and visiting scholars was show up. I think that’s what it means to be a good ally,” she said. “An ally who’s active but also does not try to take the wheel.”

Her office, while not dealing directly with international students, has been trying to create ways to lend support. “You try to help people have the time and space to process what they need to, and do the nitty gritty analysis of visas and things like that,” she said. “All the people that I know have more than one identity. And so the fact that technically under my definition of how my office runs and who it supports may not very specifically be international students; however, what happens in our world has an impact on all of us.”

Karen Edwards, director of international student affairs, considers this executive order something new that the College has never had to deal with before.

Edwards said that all students who came to Grinnell with a four-year visa are in lawful status and will be through their graduation. For students from the seven banned countries, there are opportunities they will have to give up.

“But it means opportunities we take for granted like the ability to study abroad or do an externship overseas is simply not a part of their plan, and can’t be,” Edwards said. “I’ve got an outpouring of emails from alums, from people in the local community, who say, ‘Hey, if any of these guys aren’t able to travel home this summer and need help with housing, keep me in mind as a resource.’ And that’s pretty cool.”

Aden almost went abroad to Denmark this year, but did not because of visa issues. Had she been in Denmark when the order was announced, she would have been unable to return. “It could have been worse,” she said.

Professors have been working on projects surrounding Islamophobia at the College. Professor Caleb Elfenbein, history and religious studies, started a digital humanities project this past summer. He uses data visualization to underscore incidents of violence against Muslims in America. It was inspired by a project called “Mapping Police Violence.”

“It’s a digital humanities project that seeks to present data about all kinds of events that reflect Islamophobic attitudes in the United States. The data set includes incidents ranging from harassment on the street or in stores all the way to national political discourse and everything in between including legislation, violent attacks, controversies about mosque construction and cemetery construction, an incredible rage of really tragic and sad behavior,” Elfenbein said.

Elfenbein decided to do this project while thinking about comparing cross-cultural contexts. He thought about state policies that induce fear and intimidation in some Muslim-majority countries, comparing it to the United States. He asked the question: “How does Islamophobia affect American Muslims’ ability to not be in fear, or limited to presenting themselves one way in public life?”

Although he began thinking about this project before the executive order was signed, Elfenbein argued Islamophobia is necessary when considering this executive order’s causes and implications.

“There is an effort among some media outlets to emphasize the handful of fake reports on violence against Muslim Americans and a project like this can draw attention to the reality of hundreds of incidents that do occur,” Elfenbein said.

According to Elfenbein, although the majority of these incidents of violence happen in densely populated areas, there are a variety of different incidents that happen all over the U.S.

Students and faculty are not the only Grinnellians that have been taking action against the executive order. Grinnell community members have as well. Last Saturday, the League of Women Voters hosted a meet-and-greet with the Iowa state legislators at First Presbyterian Church. Pastor Wendy Abrahamson of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church said that many people in the community are unhappy about the executive order.

“There are some people that reasonably say it’s not a bad idea to vet things and look at the process. 100 percent of what I’ve heard in terms of how it was handled — it was just handled ridiculously,” she said. “Especially for Christians, immigration and being hospitable to strangers … is fundamental. Jesus’s family were refugees. So we don’t think it’s the right thing for the United States.”

Grinnellians for Change also organized a community meeting to help mobilize and coordinate productive action on Thursday, Feb. 2 at Saints Rest. At the meeting, people broke into small groups to focus on individual issues that they were interested in at a local, state and national level.

According to Miriam Amer, Executive Director on Counsel on American-Islamic Relations Iowa Chapter (CAIR-IA), at protests across the state of Iowa, there have been many more protesters than representatives from the other side. She said that Congressman Dave Loebsack has been supportive, but that the chapter knew they would get little support from others in Congress.

At the CIAR, they find attorneys for people struggling with immigration status, they consult Muslim, Arab and Sikh communities and they have huge coalitions with interreligious groups.

“It’s a collaborative effort,” Amer said. “We aren’t doing this by ourselves. We have a lot of people helping us.” In specific regards to Trump, Amer talked about his financial interests and cited some of the countries he did not include in the executive order. “He’s not going to cut off that money stream. People know that he has an agenda and don’t want to enforce things that are unjust,” Amer said.