Anxiety and indignation permeated the room at the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon’s “Know Your Rights” workshop Feb. 4 at Portland State University.
The event, which drew nearly 40 people, was prompted by President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 immigration ban, barring people from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – from entering the United States for 90 days.
More than 100,000 visas were revoked as a result of the ban. Airports, including Portland International Airport, were scenes of chaos as protesters and pro-bono attorneys arrived to support immigrants who were prevented from traveling and were instead interrogated. Deep-seated anxiety and fear that their families might be torn apart and that refugees stuck in dangerous countries could die spread throughout the Muslim community and beyond.
The evening before the gathering, James Robart, a federal District Court judge in Seattle, issued a ruling temporarily blocking enforcement of the executive order in response to a lawsuit filed by Washington’s attorney general. But the ruling didn't eliminate people's uncertainty.
“Nobody knows exactly where we stand,” said Kelly Simon, an ACLU of Oregon attorney, at the Feb. 4 presentation. “The nationwide stay … sounds excellent – it is excellent – but there are still some questions up in the air. It could be overturned very quickly.”
On Feb. 9, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an appeal by the Trump administration, refusing to reinstate the travel ban. The decision could be quickly appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
State of uncertainty
Those who attended the Feb. 4 workshop, including Muslim and non-Muslim people and people who spoke Arabic and English as their first languages, came with questions regarding the civil rights of immigrants and refugees living in Portland, driven by a desire to help people in their communities affected by the ban.
The circumstances of people traveling from the seven countries has changed by the day or the hour since the ban was initially issued. Uncertainty around how long the judicial block would last and what would happen next – when or if the Trump administration would appeal, if airlines would follow the ruling and allow immigrants and refugees to enter the United States – prevented Simon from giving attendees direct answers to some of their questions.
“We’re all having to learn a lot very quickly because things are changing so quickly,” said Simon, who led the presentation.
One woman asked about the visa status of international students at Portland State University.
“I think they should be very careful going anywhere right now,” Simon responded. “Visas that were revoked have been reinstated, but we don’t know how long that would last.”
“They don’t have to give it to you,” said Rima Ghandour, a volunteer litigation attorney with the ACLU of Oregon. “They can make it stricter, they can make it harder for people.”
During the workshop, Ghandour interjected more than once to inform the group that KLM airline, followed by an airport in Beirut, Lebanon, had announced they would transport people from the seven countries in the executive order to the U.S., adding to the sense that the situation could change in any moment.
Rights and resistance
During her presentation, Simon talked about the various lawsuits challenging the ban that had been filed in different cities and states, including the federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Oregon on Feb. 1 arguing, in part, that people detained at Portland’s airport must have access to legal counsel before being interrogated.
Simon also spoke about the rights citizens, immigrants and Muslims have under the Constitution’s First Amendment, which, in part, prohibits the government from establishing or giving preference to one religion over others, and the Fifth Amendment, which states that no person “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
“The ability to travel is considered a liberty,” Simon said.
She also spoke about the Miranda rights, which ensure that people are warned about their right to remain silent when questioned by law enforcement and their right to legal counsel.
Simon told the audience that immigrants “do not have to talk to law enforcement,” and that they do not have to provide proof of their immigration status if they did not have that documentation with them. She also stated that immigrants, if detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are not required to sign any documents – which could strip them of their rights – and that people are not required to enter the passcode of their smartphones or other electronic devices for inspection.
Simon, essentially, reviewed the civil rights and liberties many people in the United States consider basic and fundamental and take for granted – such as the ability to board an airplane and travel outside the country.
“Let’s say I want to go to Tunis or Mexico,” said Tuba Kayaarasi, who works as an instructor assistant for the Immigrant and Refugee Communities Organization. She is from Turkey, a country not named in the executive order, and she is also a naturalized U.S. citizen.
“Should I just not go?” she asked. “The First and Fifth amendments protect me.” She added that she was worried because, while she was a citizen, she was not born in the U.S.
“That (naturalized) citizenship can be stripped from you,” Simon responded. “There’s just risk.”
Simon said Kayaarasi, like all naturalized citizens, are protected by the Constitution, but given the fluid situation around the executive order and hostility toward people from Muslim-majority countries, Kayaarasi may have to get a lawyer to advocate for those rights.
“Turkey is 99 percent Muslim,” Kayaarasi responded. “There is 1 percent who are Armenians and Orthodox Greek. I could say I’m Orthodox Greek,” she said, referencing the part of the executive order allowing members of minority religions in the seven countries, essentially Christians, to travel to the United States.
Ghandour replied that Kayaarasi probably would be able to travel without being stopped. But she encouraged Kayaarasi, and everyone else in the audience, to not travel unless absolutely necessary.
“Just hold off,” Ghandour said. “Unless you have someone dying or an emergency. There is so much misinformation, even at customs. You could be caught up in that confusion and stopped when you shouldn’t be.”
Kayaarasi was near tears when she reflected on the fact that she could be stopped while traveling due to the executive order, even though she is a naturalized citizen, because she is Muslim.
“I felt trapped,” she said. “It’s just horrible. Even though you know that you have some rights as a citizen. Even the people that are born here may have these rights taken away from them. That is a scary feeling.”
Jamal Dar, the executive director of the African Youth and Community Organization, or AYCO, attended the workshop and said that the confusion and turmoil brought about by the executive order is more reminiscent of an unstable society or dictatorship.
“The president, within a week, is changing (federal policy),” Dar said. “Then a federal judge is blocking that. And the mayor is speaking out. What is the policy? What is the law?
“In other countries, especially in Africa and the Middle East, there is a dictatorship. We know, straightforward, who you have to be nice to or they’re going to kill you, or whatever,” Dar said. “But right now, the (United States) is a not a freedom country. It is not a dictatorship. It is in the middle, and that’s never happened before.”
The African immigrants and refugees who AYCO serves never doubted they would be safe in the United States, he said, until now. “This is the first time they ever had a doubt.”
They worry about whether they belong in the U.S. and if they will be deported, Dar said. “That is a fear they never expressed (before). It’s very complicated and it’s heartbreaking when you cannot give them any answers.”
Dar is scheduled to fly to Kenya later this month to visit family. He planned the trip before Trump’s executive order went into effect. He’s not planning to change or cancel his flight.
“Whatever happens,” he said, “it’s meant to be.”
More information is available in the "Know Your Rights" resource on the ACLU's website.