The timing of President Donald Trump’s travel ban, implemented Thursday on the eve of a long Independence Day weekend in the U.S., was paradoxically fitting. America is a nation of immigrants – unless your ancestors are Native American, they came from another country. The pilgrims were the original refugees. Irish, Italian, Eastern European, Chinese, and most recently Latin American immigrants have done the most backbreaking work our nation has to offer. As of 2015, a record 43.2 million immigrants were living in the U.S. comprising 13 percent of the population.
And yet the U.S. has always discriminated against newcomers.
The Alien and Sedition Acts, passed by Congress in 1798, made it easier to deport foreigners and harder for new immigrants to vote. On the campaign trail, Trump spoke fondly of “Operation Wetback,” the Eisenhower-era program that led to mass deportations of poor Mexican farmworkers. In almost every decade dating back to the 1950s, a majority of the American public has disapproved of accepting large numbers of refugees.
The Trump administration began enforcing a watered-down version of the travel ban after the Supreme Court lifted lower court rulings that found it discriminatory and unconstitutional. The justices ruled that Trump’s ban, ostensibly implemented for urgent national security reasons, should apply only to people without a “bona fide relationship” to a person or entity in the United States.
Trump officials narrowly interpreted that to only mean mothers, fathers, children, son or daughter-in-laws, and — after a last-minute reversal — fiancés. Other close relations — like grandparents, grandkids, aunts, uncles, and cousins — aren’t covered. The restrictions apply to travelers from six-Muslim majority countries that don’t already have a valid visa, and all refugees regardless of their country of origin.
While relatively limited, the ban throws a wrench in the gears of the massive refugee resettlement program, affecting tens of thousands of people and discouraging other nations from taking in some of the 22.5 million refugees worldwide, half of which are kids under 18.
“It really is just a terrible response to the refugee crisis,” said Kay Bellor, vice president for programs at Lutheran Immigrant Refugee Services, one of nine organizations that works with the government to find homes for refugees. “It does not reflect who we are as a nation.”
Over time, Americans have begrudgingly accepted generations of immigrants and refugees are now woven into the fabric of many communities across the country. But this is a pivotal moment that will determine whether Trump’s America-first nationalism will shape the nation’s future. The Supreme Court will make a final decision about the travel ban after hearing arguments in October, and already the Trump administration’s interpretation of “bona fide relationship” has been challenged, though for now it remains the law of the land.
In a call Friday with reporters, several leaders of faith-based groups and nondenominational refugee advocates said the Trump administration has offered virtually no guidance on how the ban will be implemented after July 6, when the U.S. is expected to hit Trump’s reduced cap of 50,000 refugee admissions for the fiscal year. It’s unclear whether refugees who don’t already have close family members will be allowed to enter the country.
Roughly 26,000 refugees abroad have already been cleared for resettlement, which means they’ve undergone sometimes years of extreme vetting and background checks. Many of those people — including children — could now be turned away. Trump says this is necessary for national security, but there have been no fatal terror attacks by refugees in the U.S. since before 1980, when modern screening procedures were put in place.
While people across the U.S. spend the Fourth of July weekend enjoying cookouts and fireworks, others who have spent years patiently waiting for their chance to live the American dream will be stuck in far-flung refugee camps not knowing what comes next. Historically, this is par for the country’s course. But it also shows how easily progress can be reversed by something as subjective as the government’s definition of a “bona fide relationship.”
“With this one interpretation we’re deciding to slam the door in their faces for no good reason,” said Melanie Nezer, senior vice president for public affairs at the refugee resettlement agency HIAS. “It’s bad for them, but it’s also bad for us. It shows where we are as a country.”