In the wake of President Trump’s executive orders banning refugees and immigrants from some Muslim-majority countries, a panel of Emerson faculty took the stage at the Paramount Center Wednesday to put nativism into historical and political context.
“President Trump’s Immigration Order and Its Aftermath” was swiftly organized by the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies and was moderated by Institute Dean Amy Ansell.
Less than a week after Trump’s orders set off a storm of lawsuits and protests, immigration attorney and Institute affiliated faculty member Sarah Schendel boiled down the content of the orders and their legal ramifications for millions of people inside and outside the United States.
The three executive orders in question authorize a “wall” along the Mexican border, prevent immigrants from seven countries from entering the United States and ban all refugees for 120 days (those from Syria indefinitely), and take away funding from so-called sanctuary cities. The administration claims that the orders are intended to protect Americans.
“No citizens from those seven [banned] countries have conducted terrorist attacks in the United States,” Schendel said. “There’s an incredible amount of advocacy being done to stop this from happening.”
Institute Assistant Professor Yasser Munif laid out the history of Islamophobia in the West, from European colonialism to modern portrayals of Islam as inherently violent, uncivilized, homogeneous, and sexist/homophobic.
He said Trump has awakened awareness of Islamophobia and other injustices and made resistance possible, but that it’s important that activist groups come together if that resistance is to achieve anything.
“We need to be vigilant, because things can get worse,” Munif said.
Kaysha Corinealdi, an assistant professor in the Institute, said the 20th century saw a number of policies in various countries that served to dehumanize and reject specific groups of people, whether Asians, Africans, or Muslims. Arguments for banning these groups fell along the lines of diluting national character, taking jobs, or creating violence.
Some policies evolved to apply not only to immigrants, but also to their children—even when born in the host country. Policies in place during World War II that denied citizenship to anyone born in Japan or China eventually led to the internment of Japanese Americans in prison camps.
“Don’t assume that because this particular law doesn’t include a member of a group that you belong to that it won’t be expanded to include [your] group as well,” Corinealdi said. “This is the time to really resist attempts to normalize [excluding specific groups].”
Institute affiliated faculty member Gazmend Kapllani, a journalist who has extensively interviewed immigrants and migrants around the world, said since World War II, there have been three internationally ratified documents that have aimed at combatting nationalism and racism: the Declaration of Human Rights; the Convention on the Prevention of Genocide; and the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines who is a refugee and nations’ obligations to help them.
It’s that third convention that Trump’s executive order seems to defy, which some European leaders (German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in particular) have been vocal about, he said. But Trump’s move has emboldened right-wing nationalist leaders in Europe, such as France’s Marine Le Pen.
“The stance in America over the last [several] days toward immigration and refugees has boosted in a specific way all these political forces in Europe that envision [going] backwards to an era where nation-states reigned through strong borders and treated with cruelty any minority deemed undesirable,” Kapllani said.
Associate Professor of Marketing Communication Paul Mihailidis recently published a German government-funded report authored with colleagues, including Associate Professor of Visual and Media Arts Eric Gordon and Engagement Lab research project coordinator Liat Racin, that looked at how digital media and storytelling could be used to create empathy for migrants to mainland Europe.
The report found that the “depersonalization of complex issues” allowed societies to take on more reductionist views of migrants, which in turn helped them rationalize their distrust of immigrants, and contributed to politicians responding to nationalist rhetoric, he said.
The researchers came up with a number of “guiding statements” for building nuance and empathy around migrants, including telling stories “from within and not from beyond,” reframing stories beyond the dominant narrative, and focusing on stories over tools of storytelling.
“What these are are not solutions, but they are avenues we can use to make civic actions,” Mihailidis said.
Ansell opened the panel up to audience questions, and led things off with a question about how to disentangle white nationalism that has moved in from the fringes from the specter of terrorism that has pervaded the last several decades.
Corinealdi said that America has a long tradition of “othering” many groups, and cautioning against thinking the current wave of white nationalism is a “fringe notion.”
“Although we tout the United States as a nation of immigrants, we have repeatedly [discriminated against] many immigrants,” she said, listing Asians, Italians, Irish, and Jews. “There’s been this legacy of othering that in the 20th century became much more one targeting black and brown bodies.”
Schendel noted that the history of discrimination in America is still visible on immigration forms today, which ask questions about Communist affiliation and bigamy—things most contemporary people would never think about.
About half the student questions were about specific details of Trump’s executive orders. One person asked Schendel if someone from one of the seven banned countries has their visa expire in the next 90 days, whether they would have any legal recourse to stay. (Answer: They’d likely be told the visa won’t be renewed and have to leave.) Another asked if a rumor that green card holders and first-generation Americans would be deported was true. (Answer: No; though there are some conservatives who would like to take away birthright citizenship.)
As alarming as the executive orders are, “there’s a middle ground we want to hit,” Schendel said. “We don’t want to create panic.”
Emerson student Benjamin Dagler ’19, who came to the forum as part of his Race and Ethnicity class, said he appreciated that so many of his questions were answered.
“A lot of the logistical questions about the execution of the executive orders, I feel like we were kind of hazy on the details,” he said.
Justice Harrison ’18 said he didn’t come to the forum with a lot of questions for the panelists, but he did come with a lot of questions for himself, in terms of how he would take action and take care of himself.
“I think it’s super important as an activist and as a student to be able to step back and really analyze the situation, rather than be reactionary,” he said.