Politics of Poverty

Vigilance against injustice: Oxfam’s work in the Muslim ban era

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A man holding the No Muslim Ban Ever sign joins the coalition mobilizing to oppose the Muslim bans. (Photo: Les Talusan)

It has been a long fight already, but we’re not backing down.

“When good people in any country cease their vigilance and struggle, then evil men prevail”

— Pearl S. Buck

Oxfam has worked to combat the injustice of poverty for decades. Today, as always, this work requires looking beyond the daily scandals to fundamental issues of human rights. Our work on refugees in the United States is a recent good example of this, particularly the year and a half (so far) of fighting against the Trump administration’s Muslim bans.

Just 20 months into Donald Trump’s presidency we’ve already faced a slew of attacks on refugees and other vulnerable migrants: four Muslim bans, the lowest cap for refugee resettlement in the program’s history, and the rise of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment. It’s defeating. In a world where 68 million are displaced from their homes, we have a moral obligation to open our hearts and borders; instead, our president has slashed the number of refugees the United State will accept – and we’re not even on track to meet that target.

From the beginning of the bans, we’ve rallied, collected petition signatures, pressured Members of Congress,  shared stories of refugees and individuals affected by the bans, and helped take the battle into court. With your help, these efforts have led to concrete victories. Now, as we anxiously await a Supreme Court ruling on the third Muslim ban, we’re taking a look back at how we got here.

Protesters gather on January 29, 2017 in Boston’s Copley Square to speak out against the first executive order. (Photo: Lauren Levine / Oxfam)

Ban #1: From airports to courtrooms

On January 27, 2017, just one week after taking office, President Trump issued his first executive order. The order suspended all refugee admission for four months, and prevented individuals from six Muslim-majority countries entry for three months. Given the raging civil war in Syria the order was particularly brutal in its indefinite ban of Syrian refugees.

The ban sent shockwaves around the world, triggering anxiety among refugees on the cusp of resettlement. Some refugees boarded planes to their new home, only to be detained upon arrival. Others were barred from stepping on the planes in the first place. After enduring two grueling years of background checks, interviews, and medical checks from multiple US agencies, many had the door to a new life slammed in their faces.

With others, we took action. Thousands flocked to airports holding signs of welcome, and we were standing right beside them. Just a day after the first ban was issued, we teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as the plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the order. By partnering with rights-based organizations to form the No Muslim Ban Ever coalition, we sought to more effectively oppose the bill, and put ourselves in a position to do so with every successive ban.

Oxfam places a “refugees welcome” mat on the stoop of President Trump’s childhood home in Queens, New York. (Photo: Chris Gregory/Oxfam)

Bans #2 & #3: Rolling out the ‘Refugees Welcome’ mat

In March, the second ban was enacted, once again suspending refugee admission and entry from several countries. After over 100,000 of you signed our refugee petitions, we delivered them to Congress to demonstrate the widespread desire to welcome more refugees into the country. Ignoring this support, President Trump’s second ban featured a drastic decrease in the Presidential Determination, the cap the President sets on yearly refugee admissions. The No Muslim Ban Ever coalition stood in solidarity outside the White House, calling out the administration for the cruel ban and unprecedentedly low refugee ceiling.

To combat the political apathy toward refugees on Capitol Hill and within the administration, we decided to invite refugees into President Trump’s childhood home. But just a week after we placed a “refugees welcome” door mat on the Trump house porch, the administration released the third Muslim Ban.

The successive bans meant that much of the documentation refugees prepared for their arrival, including the necessary medical checks, had now expired. The journey thousands of refugees had gone through to be accepted into the US resettlement process was arduous and tiring. The approximately two-year long process requires screenings, interviews, exams and extensive documentation including birth certificates and marriage licenses. Recent political rhetoric has suggested that the vetting process is not extreme enough. In practice, it is conservative, exhausting, and comprehensive. The bans and subsequent expirations catapulted refugees globally into a panic of renewing documents in fear of missing their opportunity for a safer future.

The No Muslim Ban Ever coalition marches in solidarity with refugees and immigrants globally demanding the discriminatory bans be dismantled. (Photo: Les Talusan)

Ban #4: The fight marches on

The latest version of the ban, released by the Trump administration released in October 2017, is still in effect. For those with relatives living in one of the banned countries, holidays, birthdays, graduations, and marriages have passed, marked by the sadness of separation. Refugees desperately fleeing war and persecution are denied refuge. This is not who we should be Americans.

Many Americans are descendants of immigrants, myself included. And while the image of the Statue of Liberty has often been co-opted for nationalistic arguments, she stands grounded in the history of welcoming refugees and immigrants noting: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The refugees who have been able to settle in the US have done so in spite of the discriminatory orders designed to keep them out. These individuals work at your neighborhood supermarkets, open their own businesses, send their kids to the local schools, and are members of local faith communities. Many have received this opportunity knowing others have been denied the same chance. While we’ve come far, the work is not yet done. We must remain vigilant.

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