New immigration restrictions signed by President Donald Trump created chaos at the nation’s airports over the weekend. In the Greater Houston area, Muslims and legal experts were grappling with the implications.
Trump signed an executive order Friday that, effective immediately, suspended the U.S. Refugee Admission program for 120 days and prohibited entry by foreign nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days.
“As you can imagine, in the community people are very anxious and some of them are fearful as to what is going on,” said M. J. Khan, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston. “I’ve received calls asking, ‘What should we do? What does it mean?’”
The Islamic Society of Greater Houston operates Masjid Al Salam, the Champions Islamic Center, located on Old Louetta Road in Spring.
Khan said families that are not from one of the countries listed in the ban are nonetheless apprehensive that if they travel, they will now be able to return to the U.S.
“There is a tremendous amount of concern and anxiety, and we don’t have any answers,” Khan said.
Executive order unprecedented, legal experts say
Arsalan Safiullah, staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations Houston, said his organization and other attorneys were scrambling over the weekend to respond to the order. He said he spent time at George Bush Intercontinental Airport checking on whether any detainees needed assistance.
“The story was unfolding so quickly we were unsure how the customs officers were going to interpret the executive order,” he said.
The order also suspended entry of refugees from Syria indefinitely, suspended the visa waiver program and capped the number of refugees entering the country in fiscal year 2016-17 at 50,000 compared to the 110,000 target set by the previous administration. The order said the suspension was to allow for an examination of security screening measures.
A day after the order was signed, Judge Ann Donnelly in the U.S. Eastern District Court of New York issued a stay of removal that prevented valid visa holders and refugees from the affected countries already detained or in transit to the U.S. from being denied entry into the country.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said 872 refugees would be arriving and processed for waivers this week. DHS Secretary John Kelly met with Gov. Greg Abbott Wednesday for a conversation on Texas’ southern border. Abbott has not yet issued a statement on the travel restrictions.
Ali Zakaria, a Houston-based immigration attorney, said the order was unlike anything he had seen in more than 20 years practicing law. As for the Syrian refugees who had been granted asylum already, Zakaria said they are in legal limbo.
“There have been a lot of lawsuits filed, and we’ll have to see what the court finds,” he said.
After spending two days at Bush Intercontinental with other volunteer lawyers, Zakaria said he is representing a Jordanian teenager referred to in news reports as a student at Katy High School. Zakaria’s office confirmed the client is the same case reported on.
Coming to the Lone Star State
Muslims and refugees are no strangers to Texas. The 2010 U.S. religious census determined the state had the largest Muslim population of any in the nation while in FY 2015-16, Texas resettled 7,803 refugees, the second-highest state behind California, according to the Pew Research Center.
In Fort Bend County, Muslims accounted for nearly 3 percent of the population in 2010, roughly equivalent to that of Harris County, according to the religious census. It ranked 11th out of 35 Texas counties in the census for its number of Islam adherents—17,794 that year.
“We feel that the war on terror has several fronts,” Khan said. “Extremists and terrorists are using false narratives to promote what they are doing. The best way to counter it is to use the American [Islamic] community. Our stories are bright, shining stories as to how great America is.”
The stories of Muslim-Americans who are professionals, firefighters, doctors and who serve in the U.S. armed forces are strong examples of the fulfillment of the American dream, Khan said.
“We should be used by this administration to counter this evil narrative, and show how great America is,” he said.
Why these seven countries?
The countries identified in the travel ban had previously been designated “countries of concern” by the DHS and were given new visa waiver program eligibility requirements in the Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015. The act was signed by then-President Barack Obama in 2016 but did not ban all travel from those countries, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol website.
The only travelers permitted from the seven countries were people with diplomatic or certain governmental organization visas.
Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen are majority-Muslim countries and the executive order states refugees from the countries can be admitted on a case-by-case basis with priority given to those who are a religious minority. During the presidential campaign, Trump supported a ban on Muslim immigrants to the U.S., but the White House has said the recent restrictions are not a “Muslim” ban.
The executive order states its purpose is to prevent individuals with terrorist ties and foreign nationals with intentions to commit terrorist acts from entering the country. The order cites the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and “numerous foreign-born individuals” who were “convicted or implicated in terrorism-related crimes” since 9/11 who entered on student, visitor or employment visas as motivation for tightening the country’s visa and refugee resettlement programs.
Of the 19 attackers identified in the terrorist attacks on 9/11, 15 were from Saudi Arabia, two were from the United Arab Emirates, one was from Lebanon and one was from Egypt—none of which are included on the list of countries in Friday’s restrictions.
Khan said he would urge lawmakers to recognize that Muslims are a part of American society, and committed to the fight against extremism.
“We are against extremism,” Khan said. “If anybody talks about extremist views, we take serious note and report it to the authorities.”
Although protests were held in multiple cities around the country Saturday and Sunday to protest the president’s order, a Reuters/Ipsos online opinion poll of 1,201 people in 50 states was nearly split on the issue. About 49 percent of respondents supported the restrictions and about 41 percent opposed them, according to the results.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz supported the executive order while Sen. John Cornyn said in a Facebook post that he opposed a blanket ban of immigrants based on religion.
Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, has denounced the executive order while U.S Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, was less clear on his stance.
“While I support the President’s overall goal to tighten our screening process, we must take deliberate and decisive steps to achieve this goal,” Olson said in a statement Monday.
Khan said Masjid Al Salam will continue to support its congregation and reach out to interfaith groups to relieve tension in the community.
“We will address this situation to our community to try to calm people down and ask them to not be fearful, and to be optimistic.”
What the Executive Order says:
- Suspends entry for people coming to the U.S. from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen for 90 days. Other countries could be added. This excludes people with certain diplomatic or governmental organization worker visas such as NATO and the United Nations.
- Suspends Visa Waiver Program
- Suspends U.S. Refugee Admission Program for 120 days and suspends entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely
- Caps number of refugees entering U.S. in fiscal year 2016-17 to 50,000
- Refugees may be admitted from the seven countries on a case-by-case basis if DHS decides it is in the national interest; priority given to religious minorities; if admittance adheres to a preexisting international agreement; or if the person is already in transit and denying admission would cause undue hardship
Are you affected?
Given the changing implementation of the executive order, attorneys Zakaria Ali and Arsalan Safiullah recommended anyone who may be subject to the travel restrictions contact an attorney for guidance. They also recommended people planning to travel to or from the affected countries refrain until further notice.
Safiullah can be reached at 713-366-6686 or by calling the main CAIR-Houston line at 713-838-2247.
University of Houston students who may be subject to detention or denied reentry into the U.S. because of the executive order have also been advised not to travel outside the country. UH has about 280 students, faculty and staff from the seven countries, according to a statement from the system chancellor.