Two Years After the Muslim Ban: Is Discrimination Our New Normal?

Curt Goering, executive director, Center for Victims of Torture

There has not been a worse time in recent history to be a refugee. A few years ago when I — and several of my colleagues in the human rights community — watched the number of displaced people worldwide hit upwards of 50 million, we were horrified. We thought the total couldn’t get any worse. We were wrong.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports that there are now 68.5 million forcibly displaced people on earth. This means that according to the UN, we’re living in a world in which one person is forced to flee every two seconds from oppression and violence, including torture. Yet as those numbers continue to increase, the number of refugees admitted into the United States has plummeted.

In Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, notwithstanding an admissions goal of 110,000 set by the previous administration, the U.S. resettled only 53,716 refugees. The following year the Trump administration set the annual admissions goal to a then-historic low (45,000), but fell drastically short even of that, resettling only 22,491. In September, the Trump administration outdid itself again, setting the FY2019 refugee admissions number to 30,000 — a new historic low — and followed shortly thereafter with a proclamation banning the admission into the U.S. of many asylum seekers at our southern border .

This month, we mark the second anniversary of the policy decision that set the country on this sad course: President Trump’s Muslim Ban, the egregious Executive Order designed to keep Muslim noncitizens out of the United States. The ban has undergone multiple iterations since its inception, and has been accompanied by a set of similarly nefarious efforts — beyond the shamefully low refugee admissions goal discussed above — to dismantle the refugee admissions program. The third version of the ban — Muslim Ban 3.0, issued in September of 2017 — remains permanently in effect. Of the ban’s targeted countries (Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen) many have, in the past decade, endured some of the world’s worst crises, the kinds of upheavals our nation set up systems and laws to help others escape.

In June 2018, there was hope that the U.S. Supreme Court would strike down the ban, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. It is hugely disappointing, but perhaps not overly surprising, that the Court deferred to President Trump’s national security reasons for invoking it. The administration maintains that people from the seven banned countries may, in certain circumstances, obtain a waiver to legally enter the U.S. However, there is little evidence to suggest that the waiver process is effective. In fact, both human rights groups and former State Department officials argue that, in addition to waivers rarely being granted, the process is inconsistent and arbitrary. We all watched as a Yemeni mother lost precious months with her dying child in California as she struggled to obtain a waiver.

At CVT, we see the human cost of the Muslim Ban and its progeny every day. I spoke with a CVT client here in the U.S., a mother from a Muslim-majority country, who was separated from her children and grandchildren in the Middle East. Her family had gone through all of the procedures, filed all of the paperwork, and had been approved, at the time when we spoke, to come to the U.S. However, each time the administration announced a new version of the ban, it caused intense fear for the family’s safety and future. The client told me that she was hopeful, that the single thing keeping her going was reuniting with her loved ones. But she also emphasized how difficult it is for families to separate due to war and torture, and how painful it has become for them to remain apart without any resolution to their asylum cases, living in fear and danger for years.

Then there’s the Hadad family. They received healing care at CVT Jordan after escaping the Syrian civil war and were overjoyed when the International Organization for Migration (IOM) informed them that they had been cleared to resettle in the U.S. After the original Muslim Ban was issued — which included an across-the-board months-long “pause” on all refugee admissions — the process stopped. Nobody contacted them from IOM. When the Hadads try to call IOM, they get nothing, no answers.

CVT staff are not exempt from the detrimental effects of the Muslim Ban. CVT Senior Policy Counsel Yasmine Taeb fled Iran during the Iraq-Iran War at six years old. “We had no way of knowing then,” she told The Hill, “that a U.S. president would one day create a dense web of policies that specifically target Iranians and Muslims.” Several of Yasmine’s cousins are now unable to apply for college in the U.S. as they’d planned. Her uncle went through a 15-year process to obtain a U.S. visa, which was shut down by the ban as soon as he’d reached the final step. She said, “If my mother, my three siblings, and I had been born at a different time, [the ban] would have included us, too.”

We can make pronouncements lamenting the unfortunate state of American foreign policy, but it’s stories like these — the Hadads’ story, those of CVT’s U.S.-based clients, Yasmine’s — that precisely illustrate the human impact of measures like the Muslim Ban. So many of our clients must now come to terms with the reality that their families are never going to join them in the U.S., at least for the foreseeable future, a fact that can be extremely harmful, if not disastrous, to their recovery. Our representatives in Congress must continue to be made aware of the toll this action takes on their own people. As the Supreme Court is unlikely to revisit the Muslim Ban anytime soon, we must look to them, our Congressional representatives, for a way forward. CVT can help. Currently, CVT staff are working with allies on Capitol Hill on legislation that would effectively repeal the ban, and prohibit something similar going forward.

Meanwhile, civil society remains mobilized. It hasn’t given up, and if the 2018 midterm elections were any indication, it’s only gaining in strength. A new energy and a new kind of activism have emerged in American politics. There’s been a widespread rejection here of some of the administration’s policies and practices, and that’s encouraging, especially since programs like the U.S. refugee resettlement program have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support. There is discontent on both sides of the aisle with the way things are.

Still, with policies like the Muslim Ban firmly in place, the slashing of refugee numbers in the U.S., and the slamming of doors in other parts of the world, the horrors of war and violent conflict are as bad as ever. And it’s all part of a growing, anti-Muslim, racist sentiment — discrimination on the basis of religion. The world has become an unwelcoming place. There are fewer safe spaces.

This is not a climate that we can allow ourselves to accept or acclimate to; it can’t become the new normal. Furthermore, we cannot allow our country to continue in the tradition of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first American law preventing people from a particular national group from immigrating, and subsequent acts of ethnically-motivated prejudice and hostility, such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. It is our collective responsibility to reject discrimination. To do that, we must continue to speak out, mobilize, engage and vote so that we may look back — not even too far into the future — on how our country tolerated the Muslim Ban, how our highest Court endorsed it, and be aghast.