[Editor’s note: This is a complex and rapidly changing issue. While the information in this article is accurate and up-to-date as of press time, it is possible that the details regarding the ban may change in the future.]
On Wednesday, Jan. 25, President Donald Trump issued two executive orders, eliciting a nationwide outcry and sparking what many have called a humanitarian crisis. One order called for construction of a wall along the United States-Mexico border, while the other banned certain immigrants and refugees from entering the United States. The second order bans Syrian refugees indefinitely, bars refugees from all countries for 120 days, and blocks all travel to the United States from seven majority-Muslim nations—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—for 90 days.
Impacts of the ban were felt immediately in Poughkeepsie, the site of a new branch of Church World Service (CWS), a religious nonprofit that helps resettle refugees all over the United States. Before the ban, CWS had plans to resettle 80 refugees within 50 miles of its Poughkeepsie office in the next year. But only one group made it in before Trump’s order came down—a Congolese family of five: a father, Masumbuko, who had been a nurse in his home country; a mother, Roza, a former seamstress; and three children, Nathalie, 20, Kwizi, 13, and Leo, 8. They had been living in a refugee camp in Malawi for six long years after fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (New York Times, “Refugees Welcome. Volunteers Embrace Congolese Family in the Hudson Valley,” 1.31.2017).
CWS Poughkeepsie Interim Office Director Roisin Ford, who has worked with refugees for over seven years, commented on the ban, saying, “The majority of all refugees coming to the United States are women and children…it deeply saddens me that refugees have been so mischaracterized and misunderstood and have been the target of such fixation with the new administration.”
Patrick DeYoung ’18, who works with CWS as the Chair of the Vassar Refugee Solidarity resettlement project, explained how this ban will impact the other Poughkeepsie-bound refugees now left in limbo. He said, “The process [to come to the United States] takes over two years, at a minimum, so all of this political rhetoric about extreme vetting is really counterfactual, because the process already in place takes so long and is so thorough.” When this process is frozen, vetting has to be started all over again, even if someone was a year or two into the process already. He added, “I know for a fact that there were people who sold all of their belongings, got on planes and were turned back. So now, not only are they refugees, but they’ve uprooted themselves from their situation in whichever refugee camp or area they were temporarily settled in order to come here permanently. Those people have to start from day one [again].”
Area-bound refugees aren’t the only ones whose lives the order has thrown into disarray. Although no Vassar students or faculty have yet been caught in the ban, several foreign-born students from other schools were denied entry when they tried to return to the United States from their home countries for the start of the spring semester (USA Today, “An Iranian MIT student home for winter break is barred from returning to the United States,” 1.29.2015). Though many of these students were later able to return due to subsequent federal court orders blocking Trump’s ban, these stays are temporary and there’s no guarantee that the orders will hold.
With more than one million international students at hundreds of United States-based colleges and universities (Vox, “Trump is driving some of the world’s brightest foreign students out of America,” 1.31.2017), including approximately 17,000 from the seven banned nations (Project Atlas, “International Students in the United States,” 2015), the ban could have an enormous impact on foreign enrollment at American-based higher-learning institutions.
In large part, American colleges, including Vassar, have vowed to stand against Trump’s order. On Sunday, Jan. 29, Vassar’s Interim President, Jonathan Chenette, sent an email to the Vassar community announcing that he had signed the Academics Against Immigration Executive Order petition, which has been signed by more than 27,000 university administrators and faculty.
Chenette wrote via email, “The academic world thrives on free exchange of ideas and the influx of people crossing all sorts of boundaries, including national boundaries. Steps that shut down that exchange or cause people to withdraw from engaging with the world or a significant part of the world necessarily diminish the education we are able to offer.”
Despite the academic community’s anti-ban stance, many remain concerned. Vassar International Student Association (VISA) President Robyn Lin ’18 said in an email, “[Among VISA members] there is a general fear that the ban will spread to other countries and affect even those that are on legitimate F1 student visas, as well as a worry that prior travel history will affect entry into the States.”
VISA member Sule Marshall ’18, who is from Trinidad and Tobago, voiced the anxiety many international students around the country are feeling, saying, “They’re stopping people with Muslim-sounding names from my country even though they have green cards, and my country isn’t on the ban.”
Chenette said that if any Vassar students or employees were to be denied re-entry into the United States in the future, “We could mobilize lawyers among the Vassar alumnae/i body who have already reached out to me to offer their services in providing pro bono legal advice to students facing immigration or visa issues.”
He added that Vassar is looking into other ways to provide counseling and legal support for any students affected by this ban, or by future efforts of the Trump administration to deny entry (including re-entry) to foreigners. Providing summer housing for international students whose re-entry into the United States could be at risk if they were to go home is one possible option, Chenette said. He went on to encourage students holding American citizenship who are looking to help effect change to lobby their elected representatives to fight the ban at the national, regional and local levels.
In addition to contacting government officials, many Vassar students have participated in local protests, including the Mid-Hudson Solidarity March that took place at Poughkeepsie’s Mansion Street Post Office on Wednesday, Feb. 1, and the Hudson Valley NO Ban, NO Wall demonstration on Saturday, Feb. 4. The latter event, held in front of the Dutchess County Courthouse in downtown Poughkeepsie, was organized primarily by students from the nearby Bard College—many of whom, they would go on to say in their speeches, are either immigrants themselves or are the children of immigrants.
On Saturday afternoon, the crowd at the courthouse grew quickly. At 1:20 p.m., ten minutes before the official start time, only a few dozen people had gathered by the building’s front steps. By 1:40, a crowd of several hundred spilled out onto Market Street, filling the entire block between Main Street and Cannon Street.
Many of those assembled carried homemade signs proclaiming, “The history of liberty is a history of resistance,” “No human being is illegal,” and “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds,” among other slogans.
A few signs, such as one that read, “Never again. Jews against the ban,” explicitly referenced the United States’ history of turning away refugees. In one of the most infamous cases, in 1939, the United States denied entry to the 937 primarily Jewish passengers on the German ship the St. Louis. Hundreds of those refugees, as well as many others on different ships, had no choice but to return to Europe and were later murdered during the Holocaust (Smithsonian Magazine, “The United States Government Turned Away Thousands of Jewish Refugees, Fearing That They Were Nazi Spies,” 11.18.2015).
Before any speeches started, the group enthusiastically chanted, “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA,” “Border walls are a crime, from Mexico to Palestine,” “When refugees are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back,” “The people, united, will never be defeated” and, of course, “No ban, no wall!”
Everywhere one looked, there were symbols of protest and the fight for equality, not only on the signs the protesters carried, but also in the way they dressed: A toddler perched atop her father’s shoulders wore a Statue of Liberty costume; a young girl wearing an American flag as a hijab carried the matching Shepard Fairey “We the People” poster; and a dozen or so women had on pink, hand-knitted “pussy hats” from the Women’s March two weeks earlier.
In addition to older residents of Poughkeepsie and nearby towns, there were many young people among the diverse crowd, primarily students from Vassar, Bard, Marist College and the State University of New York at New Paltz.
In an interview, primary organizer Abiba Salahou, a senior at Bard, explained why she coordinated the event, saying, “A lot of students in our Muslim Student Organization felt threatened and unsafe and fearful and confused after the recent election, and then even more so after the recent Executive Order. We felt that we needed to build a sense of solidarity among all of our community members. We wanted to have a call to action to local legislators and let them know that they have a duty to serve us all, and not just certain groups of the population.”
Another speaker, Beacon City Councilman Ali T. Muhammad, the first Muslim elected official in that city, commented in an interview, “We have to have endurance. This is going to be ongoing and long. We have to look inside ourselves and stand up, stand up for what we can and when we can.”
Vassar student Miriam Hoyt ’20 shared her reasoning for attending the protest. “The ban on these [majority-]Muslim countries, which gives partiality to Christian immigrants, is a flagrant violation of everything America supposedly stands for,” she said. “I think it’s blatantly wrong to bar refugees from entering the country because of their faith.”
Zeke Maben ’17, added, “[In addition to marches and protests,] we need people canvassing, we need people going out and trying to change minds individually. If you have some family members who might be on the fence, work on them; it starts with the people around you.”
At 1:45 p.m., the speeches started and would continue until just before the event ended at 3 p.m. Salahou went first, cautioning protesters to remain vigilant despite the recent federal court orders that temporarily blocked the ban. “Let me be clear that I think we would be extremely mistaken if we think that the recent repeal of Trump’s executive order means that our work here is done and that we all get to go home,” she said before the enthusiastically cheering crowd. “The issue is much bigger than the executive order itself; it’s the fact that there are people in this country, and even in the Hudson Valley, who are in support of the Muslim ban and who will be making sure that they’re out protesting on Monday to bring it back. Refugee programs around the country have already been shut down. Our work has just begun.”
Sana Mustafa, a Syrian refugee and a graduate of Bard, delivered a powerful speech illuminating her experience, saying, “I am a refugee because we, the Syrian people, rose up against our dictators in the Bashar al-Assad regime. I am a refugee because the international community did nothing when we are being killed in front of all of you. I am a refugee because we spoke up, we demanded freedom, and we were met by violence. I am a refugee because my father got detained three years ago for speaking up for freedom and we never heard anything about him. I am a refugee because the United States did not stand with us. I am a refugee because the United States actually bombed us. I am a refugee because the whole world did nothing and watched us being killed…I don’t see any difference between the Trump regime and the Assad regime…I am striving to be reunited with my family here and this was put on hold because the Trump regime decided so.”
The protest concluded with renditions of Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” before the organizers reminded the crowd to disperse peacefully. According to the City of Poughkeepsie Police Department, there were no arrests or reports of violence.
Wyn Zenni ’20, who, along with another Vassar student, passed around a sign-up sheet for Vassar Refugee Solidarity at the protest, recommended ways for Vassar students to get involved and learn more, saying, “Try to immerse yourself in as many ways as you can: Watch the news, see what’s happening, join clubs that might have more information. There are ways to get involved all around campus.”
“The refugee [crisis] is one of the biggest global issues of our generation,” added DeYoung. “I hope people will keep active and put pressure on their elected representatives to hopefully force a movement on this issue.”