The Ban, the Wall: Bearing Witness

Which of our neighbors have been rounded up so far?

Reports say there is going to be another travel ban soon, perhaps even today. And so, standing on the precipice of our next great catastrophe, I have decided to take stock, as far as I can, of this thing we have wrought, which I can only describe as the new American carnage. Moreover (sorry about this) I would like to put forth my own obnoxious “all else is a distraction” theory:

In my opinion, this is the greatest story of the moment, and all else is a distraction. Think-piece-ologists have recently argued that the “real story” is the dismantling of our administrative state, or the lock-out of the free press from the halls of power, or the Russian oligarchy’s new influence on the Republican party, or so on. But, when the people of the future look back at us now, it seems to me that they will “little note, nor long remember” the exact form of our bureaucracy, or whether we took seriously our own promises to ourselves about freedom of the press, or whether Michael Flynn was actually colluding with the Russian ambassador rather than just wishing him a very very merry Christmas. These things will all be seen as incidental: goings-on as curious and inconsequential as Rudolf Hess in a biplane or Marat in a bathtub. I submit that, for the people of the future, all these stories will be incidental to the story of why we allowed our neighbors to be terrorized and rounded up.

So, I am making a small attempt to bear witness.

I am asking six questions.

Who has been detained?
Who has been denied entry?
Who has been rounded up?
Who has been deported?
Who has fled as a refugee from my country?
Who has been killed here?

Who has been detained? Who has been denied entry?

I’ll start out by admitting I do not have a very clear picture of how many people who were affected by the first travel ban have had their dire situations resolved. There were 100,000 visas revoked and then reinstated; 500,000 green card holders and a presumably gigantic number of dual citizens initially affected; and then of course there were all the hopeful would-be immigrants and asylum-seekers on whom we slammed the door.

There were travelers stranded in airports, many of them students, some of them long-time residents of the United States, some of them persona non grata in their countries of origin who had suddenly been rendered effectively stateless; refugees who had spent years being vetted whose dreams were dashed at the very last moment; relatives about to be reunited with family members after years of separation; visa holders who were deported because they were airborne when the ban was put in place; visitors and refugees who simply hoped to access our healthcare system—one cruel irony of the debacle being that the UN directs refugees with the worst medical problems to the U.S., so some of the most at-risk patients in the world were suddenly in great peril.

I, like you, have read that, after the ban was stayed, some of these thousands of people were able to reach their homes, their doctors, or their new lives, but I do not know about all of them. So, we must first countenance the scale of the devastation of the original ban, and contemplate our inability to grasp the scope of it.

I will list a few cases which I found particularly upsetting at the time:

1. In Louisville, a 14-year-old boy’s immediate family, his mother and brother, were stranded overseas, leaving him to fend for himself.

2. A mother who had been forced to make the awful decision to leave one child behind when she fled Somalia years ago was about to be reunited with her lost son. The ban derailed her plans.

“Why do you hate me, Mommy?” Mohamed asks almost every time they speak. “Why haven’t you come for me?”

3. Even though it was the day after the ban had been stayed, around 140 Somali refugees waiting for their flights to the U.S. were sent back to their refugee camp in Kenya, where some of them have lived their entire lives.

4. A Chicago doctor couldn’t return home from his own wedding.

5. Another doctor, who could not return from a trip to visit his family, is my neighbor. He lives a few blocks from me. He’s back home now. While describing to a reporter how he’d been affected, he unconsciously and selflessly veered into describing how his patients in Brooklyn had been affected:

“My colleagues are going to be affected, hospital’s going to be affected — that’s for sure, as I said, my patients — for sure, yea I have, we are following patients, following all patients, so I have to follow my patients, every one of them, they have to see me,” he said. “So I’m happy that I’m here now, I can see my patients.”

6. And, finally, it’s a small thing to fixate on, but one graduate student’s anguished Facebook post, in which she wrote, “No one cared what will happen to my dog,” makes me nauseous every time I think about it.

(You should watch this adorable video of Nazanin Zinouri and her dog reuniting before we move on to the really bad stuff.)

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But now I want to look at who has been detained or denied entry since a federal court put a stay on the ban, as well as who has been detained or denied entry for reasons that seem clearly linked to their ethnicity or religion, or for no reason at all. There have been some alarming reports:

1. Muhammad Ali, Jr., the son of Muhammad Ali, was detained at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and questioned more than once about his religion.

2. A reporter’s Trinidadian husband, a U.S. permanent resident, whose last name is Ishmael, was detained at the same airport and asked about his ethnicity and “how he got his name.” His legal counsel was threatened with arrest.

3. The Australian children’s book author Mem Fox, on her 117th trip to the United States, was detained and questioned for two hours, for no apparent reason.

4. Sidd Bikkannavar, an American-born scientist who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and who is even a member of the Customs and Border Protection Global Entry program, which requires an extensive background check, was detained and forced to give the passcode for his phone, which contained sensitive government material.

5. A Welsh Muslim schoolteacher was denied entry to the United States while he was chaperoning a school trip, for no apparent reason. The teacher’s employer, demanding answers from the U.S. Embassy in London, said in a statement that “Mr Miah’s removal from the flight left pupils and colleagues shocked and distressed.” Miah himself said:

“Everyone was looking at me. As I was getting my luggage the teachers and kids were confused. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I was being escorted out. It made me feel like a criminal. I couldn’t speak, I was lost for words.”

6. A Jordanian citizen, a 22-year-old college graduate, had his valid U.S. tourist visa canceled and was deported because he was born in Syria. He described an alarming scene:

Abu Romman says the officer told him he would not be allowed to call his embassy before he signed papers agreeing to be deported. He says he wasn’t allowed to phone a lawyer or a family member.

“He said, ‘If you refuse to sign the papers … I will ban you from entering the United States for the rest of your life,'” Abu Romman says.

He was told he would be deported the following morning.

CBP officers took his jacket, his belt, his phone and his shoelaces, he says, and put him in a cold cell with a steel door and open toilet, along with five other people.

“I sat there and introduced myself to my cellmates. Most of them were engineers or something,” Abu Romman says.

There were five mattresses on the floor for six people. Abu Romman says everyone crammed into the cell had advanced degrees, including an Indian engineer working for an American company.

Syrian cinematographer Khaled Khateeb, a member of the Syrian Civil Defense, who provided video for the Oscar-winning documentary "The White Helmets", in Istanbul, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. The young volunteer in the Syrian search-and-rescue group featured in an Academy Award-winning documentary said Monday he hopes the award will help stop "massacres" in his country, and described a U.S. decision to block him from traveling to Los Angeles for the Oscars as "America's loss." (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Syrian cinematographer Khaled Khateeb, a member of the Syrian Civil Defense, who provided video for the Oscar-winning documentary “The White Helmets”, in Istanbul, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. The young volunteer in the Syrian search-and-rescue group featured in an Academy Award-winning documentary said Monday he hopes the award will help stop “massacres” in his country, and described a U.S. decision to block him from traveling to Los Angeles for the Oscars as “America’s loss.” (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

7. The cinematographer for The White Helmets, an Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film, was prevented by the U.S., at the last minute, from flying from Turkey for the awards ceremony, supposedly because Syria would not recognize his passport. The White Helmets won the Oscar.

8. A 28-year-old software engineer traveling from Nigeria on business was held for several hours at JFK and, strangely, given a test which “looked suspiciously like the officer simply Googled, ‘Questions to ask a software engineer.'”

After Omin attempted to complete the ridiculous test designed to prove he was, in fact, a software engineer, he was informed by a customs official (who he suspects wasn’t technically trained) that his responses were incorrect.

“No one would tell me why I was being questioned. Every single time I asked [the official] why he was asking me these questions, he hushed me … I wasn’t prepared for this. If I had known this was happening beforehand, I would have tried to prepare,” Omin told LinkedIn.

“That is when I thought I would never get into the United States.”

As Omin sat, convinced he would be denied access into the United States, an official suddenly told him he was free to go. Without any further explanation, the official apparently said, “Look, I am going to let you go, but you don’t look convincing to me.”

Tired and discouraged, he simply walked out of the office without responding[.]

9. A curator who has lived legally in the U.S. for a decade, and who runs an architecture and design studio in New York, was denied entry to the U.S. on his way back from a trip to Argentina, for no known reason. He described his brutal treatment by Customs and Border Patrol officers:

A border patrol officer denied him legal counsel, claiming that “lawyers had no jurisdiction at the borders.” Mosqueda was interrogated under oath and threatened with a five-year expulsion from the US if he did not answer his questions honestly. […] He was detained for fourteen hours before his trip back. During this time he was not permitted to contact anyone or access any of his belongings. He was eventually escorted to a plane by two armed officers and was told he would not receive any of his documents until he got back to Buenos Aires.

10. And, because irony is truly dead, one of France’s preeminent public intellectuals, the Holocaust scholar Henry Rousso, was detained for at least 10 hours and nearly deported, for no known reason. He was born in Egypt.

Rousso’s scholarship focuses on the memory of the Vichy regime, the darkest chapter in modern French history, when the government of unoccupied France collaborated with Nazi Germany in World War II. Vichy authorities are particularly infamous for assisting the Germans in rounding up and deporting tens of thousands of Jews from France during the Holocaust[.]

Who has been rounded up? Who has been deported?

While the ban has been wreaking havoc at airports, the hunt for undocumented immigrants has been wreaking havoc everywhere else (and at airports).

1. Of the 680 people arrested in immigration raids across the country in the second week of February, only 75% had criminal convictions, and it has not been made clear how many of those convictions were violent crimes as opposed to non-violent crimes such as traffic violations, or the immigrant-specific crimes of having once been deported or having used fake identification documents.

2. In Arizona, a 35-year-old mother of two, who has lived in the U.S. since she was 14 years old, was detained and deported at a routine check-in with immigration officials, which she had been attending for 8 years, ever since having been caught using a fake social security number.

3. Another mother of two ditched her routine check-in and has sought sanctuary in a church in Denver, so as not to be separated from her kids.

The room holds two beds, a lamp propped on a cardboard box, and a Valentine from her youngest daughter. “I could be here days, months, maybe even years,” she said.

Daniela Vargas speaks about the recent immigration raid that picked up more than 50 allegedly undocumented immigrants including her father and brother during a news conference Wednesday, March 1, 2017, at the Jackson, Miss., city hall. A short time after the news conference, Vargas was detained by ICE officials. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Daniela Vargas speaks about the recent immigration raid that picked up more than 50 allegedly undocumented immigrants including her father and brother during a news conference Wednesday, March 1, 2017, at the Jackson, Miss., city hall. A short time after the news conference, Vargas was detained by ICE officials. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

4. Daniela Vargas, a 21-year-old who has lived in the U.S. since she was 7 years old and who is theoretically protected from deportation under DACA, “barricaded herself in a closet” when ICE agents raided her home last week. They arrested her father and brother. She was discovered, handcuffed, but ultimately released at that time.

Vargas emerged from hiding on Wednesday to give a press conference in Jackson, Mississippi. She was arrested by ICE agents immediately afterward. She is subject to removal without a hearing because she is classified as a “visa-overstay” and her DACA renewal application (DACA recipients must reapply every two years) is pending.

At her press conference, Vargas said:

“Today, my father and brother await deportation while I continue to fight this battle as a DREAMer to help contribute to this country, which I feel is very much my country.”

5. In Seattle, a 23-year-old theoretically protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), who has no criminal record, was arrested during a raid on his father’s home and is being held in detention. Officials claim he is a gang member, which he denies.

6. Everyone disembarking from a domestic flight from SFO to JFK was instructed to “show their papers” to Customs and Border Patrol agents, despite the fact that no border had been crossed by the passengers. CBP later confirmed they were searching for an undocumented immigrant.

A CBP spokesperson wrote to Rolling Stone on Friday to insist that the ID check on the jetbridge was “consensual assistance from passengers aboard the flight” and that “CBP did not compel” anyone to show ID.

7. More than 50 people were detained in immigration raids on Asian restaurants in Mississippi.

“Right now, the paranoia and sense of fear is overwhelming,” said Ramiro Orozco, an immigration attorney based in Jackson. “All the raids and the rhetoric coming from the new administration have created so much anxiety. We’re getting to the point that people are pulling their children out of school, they’re not going to work.”

8. Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco, father of three and manager of a Mexican restaurant in West Frankfurt, Illinois, was detained and held for 20 days. The town is in shock.

Tom Jordan, the mayor of West Frankfort, wrote that Mr. Hernandez was a “great asset” to the city who “doesn’t ask for anything in return.” The fire chief described him as “a man of great character.”

The letters have piled up — from the county prosecutor, the former postmaster, the car dealer, the Rotary Club president. In his note, Richard Glodich, the athletic director at Frankfort Community High School, wrote, “As a grandson of immigrants, I am all for immigration reform, but this time you have arrested a GOOD MAN […]”

Hernandez was released on bond, but still faces possible deportation.

Who has fled as a refugee from my country?

The number of asylum-seekers illegally crossing the border from the US to Canada has increased drastically in the past year.

1. At the Quebec-U.S. border crossing alone, the number has more than doubled:

In early February, 42 asylum claims were filed in just a weekend at Quebec’s land borders. In January there were 506 applications in total and many believe the number will increase. Colombia, Syria, Eritrea, Iraq and Burundi topped the applications list.

Two people who told the Royal Canadian Mounted Police they are from Sudan speak with an officer after crossing into Canada from Perry Mills, N.Y., near Hemmingford, Quebec, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Two people who told the Royal Canadian Mounted Police they are from Sudan speak with an officer after crossing into Canada from Perry Mills, N.Y., near Hemmingford, Quebec, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

2. Another significant crossing point is Emerson, a town on the Manitoba-North Dakota border. The weather there is bitterly cold. On Christmas Eve, two men who had fled Ghana out of fear of being persecuted for being gay and Muslim, but who had been denied asylum in the U.S. and were facing deportation back to Ghana, made the dangerous trek.

Disoriented from the cold and suffering severe frostbite, the pair eventually stumbled upon a highway, where a trucker stopped to help them.

Both men ended up in hospital; Mohammed had to have all of his fingers amputated, while Iyal lost all of his fingers except for his thumbs to frostbite.

Who has been killed here?

1. Two Indian nationals at a bar in Kansas were gunned down by a man shouting “get out of my country” and racial slurs. Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a 32-year-old engineer, was killed. The assailant later told a bartender he had shot “two Iranians.”

It worth noting that in the final weeks of the presidential campaign, the state Republican party of Kansas sent out mailers which made “undisguised appeals to people’s fears that radical Islamist terrorism might overwhelm Kansas.”

“Have You Met the New Neighbors?” read the bold letters on the envelope of one mailer, next to an image of an apparent Muslim terrorist. “ISIS is not going away anytime soon,” read the envelope’s script.

A mailer sent out by the Kansas state Republican party during the presidential campaign. Via the Southern Poverty Law Center.

A mailer sent out by the Kansas state Republican party during the presidential campaign. Via the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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So, where does this leave us? It leaves us here: since January 1, there have been four American mosques burned to the ground100 bomb threats against American Jewish synagogues and cultural centers, and two American Jewish cemeteries vandalized in acts of mass desecration. Millions of American schoolchildren are frightened because the government is about to take their parents away. The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security are preparing to house more people than ever before in private prisons and detention centers. People in other countries are afraid to visit or send their children here. I suppose my thesis is that if we have been waiting for something to happen, we should consider that maybe it is happening already.

So, where does that leave us? It leaves us, I think, with one more list.

Who has done the right thing?

1. In a remarkable report, Buzzfeed reveals that hundreds of churches across the country are preparing to house immigrants seeking sanctuary. Some have gone so far as to renovate church buildings with new bedrooms and showers, and to organize networks of church members willing to hide undocumented immigrants in their homes. Church leaders further attest that they are ready to take their operations underground if necessary, and to participate in a modern-day underground railroad which would ferry undocumented immigrants to Canada.

2. Ian Grillot, a patron at the bar where Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani were attacked, was also gravely injured when he tried to catch the gunman.

3. Muslim groups are raising money to pay for the cleanup of desecrated Jewish cemeteries.

4. And when eight asylums-seekers, including four children and an elderly woman who left her walker behind in her haste, barely made it over the Canadian border after dodging a Customs and Border Patrol officer, journalists for Reuters witnessed a moment of quiet decency which gives me hope. The refugees, as they fled, left behind all their worldly possessions scattered in the snow:

Officers on both sides momentarily eyed the luggage strewn in the snow before the U.S. officer took it, and a walker left on the road, to the border line.

If we continue down this path, then such acts of decency will become more important in the weeks and months ahead.

Army Capt. Matthew Ball, right, prepares to hug his former interpreter Qismat Amin, as Amin arrives from Afghanistan, at San Francisco International Airport Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, in San Francisco. Ball welcomed Amin to the United States after buying him a plane ticket to ensure he would get in quickly amid concerns the Trump administration may expand its travel ban to Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Army Capt. Matthew Ball, right, prepares to hug his former interpreter Qismat Amin, as Amin arrives from Afghanistan, at San Francisco International Airport Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, in San Francisco. Ball welcomed Amin to the United States after buying him a plane ticket to ensure he would get in quickly amid concerns the Trump administration may expand its travel ban to Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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Dana Snitzky is a Longreads contributing editor.