As Trump's Muslim Ban Looms, Americans With Mideast Roots Fear Separation From Family, Friends

Expats worry that even 'sanctuary cities' won't be able to protect them and their loved ones in the uncertainty that will follow once Trump signs the restrictive order.

Hundreds attend an evening rally in New York City's Washington Square Park in support of Muslims and immigrants, January 25, 2017.
SPENCER PLATT/AFP

NEW YORK - Muslim-Americans, uncertain of the future and fearing unprecedented persecution, gathered Wednesday night in Washington Square Park in New York City for an emergency rally of support of Muslims and immigrants.

According to drafts of an executive order that U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to sign this week, immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries will be restricted and America's refugee resettlement program will be suspended for 120 days. The proposed ban will directly impact those gathered in the park: They fear they will see their parents' path toward citizenship stopped at its tracks overnight, be separated from family and lose friends who will not come back from vacations overseas.

“I’m really scared because of my husband,” said Kadidja, 21, a medical student. “Right now he is not in America, and I want him to come to here. I’m from Pakistan, and I feel that it’s a country that will definitely be targeted. I don’t know what the ramifications of that are, for my marriage or my future life.” 

Cena, a 35-year-old immigrant from Iran, said he was planning to visit his parents for the first time in three years. "I’m on a work visa here, but now I cannot visit my parents, and they cannot visit me,” she said. “This hurts me personally, still, I know that there are people who are doing much worse.”

Hundreds attend an evening rally in New York City's Washington Square Park in support of Muslims and immigrants, January 25, 2017.
SPENCER PLATT/AFP

Cena stood with a group of Iranian expatriates whose friends have gone overseas a few days ago, not expecting the ground to shift under their feet. “I know Ph.D. students, a husband and wife, who went to a conference,” he explains, adding that now they are unsure if they can return to the United States and are anxiously awaiting news from the Trump administration, trying to piece out what it could mean in practice.

“We are facing a very insecure future right now, and we are not being supported by anyone. The Iranian government doesn’t give a damn about us,” he add. “And it came as a shock, we didn’t expect it will come this early in the presidency, and with such force.”

Hundreds attended the rally, organized by the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. Hours earlier, Trump had signed an executive order denying funding to so-called "sanctuary cities," where municipal governments refuse to hand over undocumented immigrants to federal authorities.

Mayors of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago have vowed to fight back and reject federal financial aid if that is the price they will have to pay. Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal, speaking at the rally, reaffirmed the pledge. “I will not pass a budget at the risk of losing out immigrants. We are prepared to run this city without federal dollars if that is what it takes,” she promised to the crowd.

The promise was received with applause, and the protesters chanted and celebrated the unique spirit and history of New York, the city of immigrants. Yet Muslim-Americans at the rally were worried about the extent of the protection the city can provide. “I don’t think they can, honestly,” said Kadidja. "People in the government find their ways to get what they want with the law. A city sanctuary was never assuring to me.”

Even if the city refuses to cooperate with deportations, it can't help immigrants on the path to citizenship, or those seeking to enter or visit the U.S. “My family is from Iraq, and they are in the process of getting a visa,” said Miriam, a medical professional. ”The fact that he won the electoral college makes him think he can do what he wants,” she said of Trump.

Amy Astane, 28, didn't know how much support she could expect from New York. "Everything is becoming so unpredictable," she said at the rally. “The situation is going to affect everyone somehow. For example, my boyfriend's sister, she got her visa yesterday, and now everything is going to be voided for now, for a month. I’m a citizen, but I was raised in Iran. I won’t be able to have my family visit me, I’m going to lose my friends."

"Half of them are refugees, the other half on student visa, they don’t know what will happened to their cases,” she added.

Facing an uncertain future with no protection, these New Yorkers are unsure what to do beyond a protest. “We are at a loss. I’m hearing a lot from people that say they are going to marry those who have citizenship,” says Astane.  “Probably not the best, but this is probably their last option, to go to people who have citizenship and see what they can do for them.”