President Donald J. Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order has created legal and practical uncertainties with important consequences for university communities. The executive order, entitled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States”, suspends all refugee entries to the U.S. for 120 days, and severely restricts immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Before a Jan. 28 ruling temporarily blocked the deportation of people stranded in U.S. airports as a result of the executive order, outrage surrounding the administration’s approach to immigration sparked large protests at major airports, cities, and college campuses. Dueling Feb. 3 rulings complicated the issue further. A federal judge in Boston defended the policy while one in Seattle blocked it nationwide, arguing that the administration provided no support for why the seven countries were included in the ban. Today, the State Department and Department of Homeland Security said that they would comply with the Seattle court’s temporary restraining order.
Many of the most poignant responses – from both sides of the issue – have come from college campuses nationwide. Like other campuses, Trinity University students and faculty grappled with an environment of uncertainty. Trinity University President Danny Anderson’s Jan. 31 statement on the issue confirmed the university’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and internationalization. The Contemporary investigated the executive order’s implications for Trinity University students, took the pulse of legal debates, and evaluated the law’s impact on the campus climate.
Students and Faculty React
Trinity University’s most recent statistics indicate that there are 174 international students from 47 countries on campus. According to Dr. Katsuo Nishikawa, the Director of the Center for International Engagement, Trinity does not have any international students in its database from the seven countries listed in the executive order. Dr. Nishikawa indicated that the order’s scope and the Trump administration’s unpredictability makes the law’s long term impact unknown.
In the short term, the order intimately affects Trinity students in numerous ways. Yara Samman, a junior who left Syria in 2013 and is the co-president of International Humanitarian Crisis Initiative (IHCI), expressed her disillusionment at an IHCI meeting Feb. 2. “Hearing [President Trump] say everyone from these seven countries are alienated and not allowed in anymore, even though they have been taking part in this community – it broke my heart and I feel unsafe. I have the same kinds of feelings that came to me when I was under war and it was facing bullets, tanks, or bombs,” she said.
Samman noted that she initially planned to visit her brother in Germany over the summer, or visit Greece to volunteer at refugee clinics in need of Arabic speakers. Now, she has changed those plans. She fears that she will not be able to return to the United States as a result of the Trump administration’s immigration policy, despite the fact that she has a green card. Additionally, Samman said that her green card status means that she is not listed in Trinity’s international student database.
Nipuni Gomes, a senior from Sri Lanka, discussed the implications of an uncertain immigration policy on international students. “The immediate concern for international students, especially from South Asia or the Arab world, is that there will be employers here in the U.S. who take preventative measures and not hire people at all from those countries, regardless of whether their passports are included in the ban,” she said.
Numerous students sought counsel on the matter from Trinity faculty. Dr. Simran Singh, an assistant professor of religion, received numerous messages from students and discussed the implications of the executive order in his classes. “They feel like they’re not welcome here in this country anymore, and that’s creating a real genuine feeling of alienation – many of which were born here, their families are from here, and have been here for generations,” he said.
Political science professor Dr. David Crockett explained that he has tried to reassure students by pointing to the strength of the separation of powers and the American legal system. He mentioned that citizens automatically associate the president’s policies with their negative impressions of him, and said that critics raise valid concerns when asking how far the president’s policies could extend. “My sense of the separation of powers system is that there are all sorts of countervailing forces – it’s convenient for me to say that because I’m a white male so I’m not really a target of Trump – but I know people who aren’t [white males] who are feeling concerned,” Dr. Crockett said.
Other students brought attention to the executive order’s potential impact upon immigrants and refugees from countries not included in the ban. Daniela Montúfar, a sophomore who is a frequent volunteer at RAICES, explained that the order could have a chilling effect upon Central American undocumented immigrants who claim asylum in the United States. “It’s difficult to make a Central American woman who comes with children that is hearing all of this about Trump – about what they’re doing to immigrants and refugees. How do they trust a system that is an antagonist, an enemy, and that violates their rights?” she said. Community members also discussed other important societal factors in their critique of the Trump administration’s new policy.
The Muslim Ban?
Dr. Singh framed his opposition to the executive order within the historical context of Anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. While many people see Anti-Muslim sentiment as a post-9/11 phenomenon, Dr. Singh explains that its foundations are in the slave trade where one third of all African slaves arrived in the colonies as practicing Muslims. “For me, it becomes impossible to talk about Anti-Muslim sentiment in America particularly, or in the colonized world, without really talking about race. Those two things come hand in hand. Both racism and Anti-Muslim sentiment are inextricably linked in this country and have a long and storied history,” he said. Dr. Singh argues that President Trump has consistently used the historical foundations of the fear of Islam as a basis to create policy.
Dr. Crockett was skeptical that Trump is “ethnocentric” but argued that some of his advisers such as Steven Bannon are a different story. He said that the executive order was likely a method to quickly satisfy campaign promises, but was very poorly executed. Dr. Crockett argued that the right combination of institutional checks and agency review could have helped the bureaucracy to temper the reaction to the executive order, but the president’s background in business exacerbated the problem. “Part of this may be a combination of his temperament from a CEO and a CEO background where he owns a bunch of businesses and if he wants to fire you, he can fire you. If he wants to change something, he can do whatever he wants to do. Well, big surprise, it doesn’t work that well in a political system,” he said. Savannah Seiler, a junior and member of the Pre-Law Society echoed Dr. Crockett’s sentiment, but stressed that she is not an expert on the issue. “I would imagine a travel ban would be legal as well, since as Commander in Chief Trump’s duty is to protect the nation, even if his means of protecting it are ill-conceived,” she said.
Whether the executive order violates the establishment clause of the Constitution is also in dispute. Dr. Crockett indicated that his traditionalist view of the establishment clause – that “the government can’t officially support a sect over another one” – makes him believe that advocacy groups such as the ACLU do not have a strong case in arguing that the executive order violates the establishment clause. Above all, Dr. Crockett said that the administration’s execution overshadowed its legitimate authority to pause immigration in order to review the effectiveness of current policies.
Seiler argued that the executive order is unlikely to combat terrorism effectively, noting that none of the countries have citizens who have committed terrorism against Americans. “Banning possible terrorists from traveling to this country legally will not stop them. Someone who has that much hate in their heart will not stop because a piece of paper told them no. They will find ways to come into this country illegally, just like millions of others have, and terrorize this nation with or without a ban,” she said.
For Adam Syed, a senior and a co-president of Muslim Students Association (MSA), the executive order legitimized Anti-Muslim sentiment, even if only implicitly, since it was based upon campaign promises. “There’s always a context. You have to understand how it would look to people living in those countries or people like me – it doesn’t feel like it’s not targeting Muslims. I do feel afraid based on the fact that I’m Muslim,” he said. Syed described stories of friends who received hateful letters, while describing why he believes that President Trump’s policy and rhetoric tacitly condones such actions. Others said that the public’s focus on whether the order is a “Muslim Ban” misses a central point.
For example, Dr. Nishikawa said that the appearance of a racialized approach to national security represents an independent concern, legal issues aside. “What is worrisome to me is that it’s not national security leading into racialization. Now it’s racial bias leading to, or using, national security as an excuse,” he said. Similarly, Dr. Singh said that the law’s legality does not prove that it is ethical or just. “The law is clearly founded on unjust viewpoints and practices. To make the argument that what [President Trump] is doing is acceptable because it works within our legal framework doesn’t actually make it ethical. So, I don’t buy the argument that just because it’s legal, we should accept it or consider it to be just,” he said.
The Impact on Campus Discourse
In response to the national and local climate, Dr. Singh organized an effort for students to write letters of affirmation to the local Muslim community at the Coates University Center Feb. 1. Syed said that he and fellow members of MSA were inspired by this event and the support they received. As a result, MSA has decided to host an open table in the Coates University Center within the next few weeks for students to learn about Islam. “I’m always the first person to encourage people to ask me questions they have about Islam, even if it is out of place. I’d rather have someone ask me, and let me tell them, rather than them continue to live with a thought they had from someone else who also doesn’t know much about the religion,” Syed said.
Gomes hopes the national environment does not inhibit campus discourse, but fears that the election and other Trump administration actions have made students less likely to share their opinions or engage with their religious institutions. But Syed said that despite his fear, recent events have made him committed to staying true to himself. “I’m going to grow my beard out. I don’t want to take this path of fear; I don’t want to play into their hands – Donald Trump’s hands. I don’t want to encourage the idea that it’s a ‘clash of civilizations’ and that I have to give up things about me that are inherently more from that side of the world, and drop all of that and keep the things that are ‘American’, or whatever that means,” Syed said. On that note, he praised former Prime Minister David Cameron’s Jan. 31 remarks at Trinity which praised globalization, multiculturalism, and rejected the ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative. Syed hopes to continue to engage with community members in substantive dialogue.
“At Trinity, I hope that the indirect impact is challenging us to do our homework and find as much objective information that we can find and have informed conversations about what we’re trying to do,” said Dr. Sheryl Tynes, the Vice President for Student Life. Dr. Tynes expressed her desire to guide students to resources to create the productive conversations campus requires, such as the faculty-led events after the election. Acting on this sentiment, Samsara Davalos, a first-year and the President of Trinity Diversity Connection (TDC), said that TDC is taking on new initiatives to educate students about different cultures on campus. Among such initiatives, TDC is working with IHCI and MSA to host a dialogue open to all students on the impacts of the executive order.
Students we spoke with also described the need for a new approach to conservatism on campus in light of recent events. Zabdi Salazar, a sophomore and the business manager of The Contemporary, argued that current rhetoric from some Republicans on immigration is “a detriment to the great ideals of conservatism.” Salazar said that the voices of conservatism on campus do not reflect the diversity of the ideology. “Many of them might even condone the Trump Administration’s executive order without acknowledging the political and social ramifications. Many do not acknowledge them because they are unaffected by such actions,” she said. Salazar called for the creation of a new conservative group to represent alternative views.
As the courts resolve legal questions over the president’s executive order and the administration clarifies the policy, its impact upon the Trinity community and people across the world remains in limbo. For some, institutional maneuvering may allow the Trump administration to contain the backlash. But for many, the policy’s negative impacts and nefarious origins have been clear from the outset, and demand a response.