It was a bitterly cold and windy morning when I stepped out of my apartment on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017. Donald Trump just finished his first week as president of the United States, and the night before he issued his first version of the first Muslim ban executive order, temporarily or indefinitely banning the entry of immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. Hours later, Customs and Border Patrol agents began stopping people at John F. Kennedy International Airport, detaining some of them deep in the bowels of the terminals, and preparing to send some of them back to their countries of departure.
As a longtime immigrant rights activist with the New York Immigration Coalition, a child of immigrants from Palestine, and a lifelong Brooklynite, I knew that this situation — immigrants and Muslims being seized, detained and deported at JFK airport, not 10 miles from my home — was something unprecedented. We’d already faced a tumultuous first week of the Trump presidency, with other executive orders attacking immigrants, sowing fear in our communities. But this seemed beyond the pale.
We began to hear about the people were being detained at JFK. A man named Hameed Khalid Darweesh, a former interpreter for the U.S. Army in Iraq, who’d been cleared to come to the United States and was literally in the air when Trump’s ban took effect, was confronted by CBP agents and detained overnight. I knew we had to act fast.
Forming the resistance
So I issued a call over Facebook and Twitter — #NoBanNoWall, #MuslimBan, #Resist — for anyone to come to JFK that morning to try to stop this madness, and headed there myself. As a Muslim American, it was impossible not to feel directly and personally targeted. Yes, Donald Trump had talked on the campaign trail about banning Muslims from coming to the United States, but for him to actually issue his executive order and reject many of my community from setting foot in the United States because of our religion — it was devastating to me, in a way I hadn’t imagined.
But the response I saw was also something I’d never imagined. By noon, a hundred people had come to JFK on their own, and the crowd quickly swelled. By the time evening fell, thousands of New Yorkers had come to protest, singing and chanting “Muslims are welcome here,” holding signs that said “Refugees Welcome.” Ultimately, the protests spread to other major airports across the country, and we blunted the worst of Trump’s Muslim ban attacks.
About four years since that unforgettable cold January morning, President Joe Biden issued a series of executive orders, one of which finally reversed the Muslim ban. It’s a welcome, needed first step. But the question for me is where do we go from here.
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If the past four years have taught me anything, it’s that the national movement we’ve created and the energy we saw at the airport protests will be wasted if we don’t go further and recognize our task is preventing something like that from ever happening again in America.
Now is the moment for our country to take a stand about how we treat immigrants not just from Muslim-majority countries, but from all over the world. My family came to the United States from Palestine in search of a better life. Like so many immigrant families, we struggled, always feeling like we had one foot trapped in the broken mess of our immigration system, with close family members detained and deported over the years, mired in our ruthless and cold immigration detention and deportation system.
This is the larger reality we need to change. Fighting bans at airports seems easy in comparison; winning true justice is harder. We need to protect and provide an immediate path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows.
We need to support immigrants who have worked to keep us safe and healthy, at great risk to themselves and their families, throughout this pandemic and have been left out of stimulus packages. We need to never permit the deportation and detention practices that entangled dozens of Muslims and travelers that January day, but we also need to stop the entire deportation-industrial complex that has brought so much pain to families like my own.
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Biden’s immigration bill, sponsored by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., would hire more immigration judges and pave a pathway to temporary legal status and then citizenship. It is a good start, but it can’t be just a symbolic gesture. We have to make clear that Muslims, refugees and all immigrants are welcome here — not just with our posters held aloft at airports, but our policies and laws won in the halls of Congress. Only then can we truly reach freedom and justice for my community.
Murad Awawdeh is interim co-executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. Follow him on Twitter: @HeyItsMurad