Four years ago today, the xenophobic promises of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign became a reality. The Muslim ban, signed a week into his presidency, declared that non-American citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen could not enter the United States for the next 90 days; that the Syrian refugee program would be suspended indefinitely; and programs for all other refugees would be suspended temporarily.
Panic immediately erupted at airports around America. Lawyers, elected officials, and protesters flocked to JFK, LAX, San Francisco International Airport. Nervous chants of “No hate, no fear, Muslims are welcome here” echoed outside of arrivals terminals. The ban was the first sign that people’s worst fears about the administration were coming true. Other policies like family separation at the Mexico border and a near-end to the refugee program were still to come.
The hastily drafted and legally dubious order had been signed while planes were in the air. When those planes landed, the White House policy needed to be implemented, although details on how it was to be enforced were not clear yet to officials on the ground.
Nisrin Elamin was on one of those flights. A Ph.D student at Stanford University, she had been in her home country of Sudan, researching foreign land grabs (and local resistance to them). At the time, she held a green card in the United States. While abroad, Elamin had started to hear rumors of the Muslim ban. “My partner was here in the U.S.,” she says. “I was just worried that I would be separated from him, and decided to get on the next plane to try to beat the ban, essentially.”
What followed for Elamin has forever changed her ideas about America, she says, cementing for her that the entire immigration system needed to be abolished and started anew. But her work during college at Stanford and Harvard on international solidarity movements, and after college teaching in prison, meant that the experience wasn’t fully a surprise. “When the Muslim ban hit and I was detained, I came with the knowledge that this wasn’t an exception necessarily, that this was part of a larger legacy and history of a racist criminal and immigration system coming together.”
For Elamin, who has since received her American citizenship, the conflicting realities of her status and her position in American society have proved to be personally difficult for her to navigate, but “I’m not impacted in the same way that a lot of other people have been,” she says. “I speak in part because I have the privilege to do so, and because I don’t put my life or my immediate family’s life at risk by doing so.”
Last week, after four years, the Muslim ban came to an end. It had gone through multiple expansions and reductions through Trump executive orders and survived a myriad of court cases, with a version ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court. It at times also included full or partial bans on travel from Venezuela, North Korea, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania, and was also referred to as the African ban. But one contested election and a stroke of a pen later, the ban was rescinded by an executive order from President Joe Biden on his first day in office.
This is just one story of what happened on January 27th, 2017. Upwards of 41,000 people were denied visas as a result of the Muslim ban. Who knows how many never got that far, or never even tried. Who knows how many mothers, fathers, partners, siblings, and friends were left waiting.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
My name is the Nisrin Elamin. I am 43 years old. I had to think about that for a minute [laughs]. I currently teach at a liberal arts college in Philadelphia [Bryn Mawr] in international studies, and I’m originally from Sudan. I came to the U.S. when I was 15 on my own. I came from Germany, looking really, ironically, for a place where I could be more myself as a black person. I had read Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X and had this idea that the U.S. would allow me to embrace and feel comfortable in my blackness in a way that Germany post- the Berlin Wall falling did not. Because there was a lot of xenophobia at the time, especially toward people who looked like me.
Fifteen sounds like a really young age to move to a different continent without your family. How did you come to that decision?
I think it’s a fairly common story, perhaps. I was on scholarship at a boarding school in Germany and we had an exchange student from a boarding school in the U.S. And I was having a pretty hard time in Germany. There’s a lot of racism, not only from my peers, but also from my teachers. I remember very vividly in biology class, you know that Darwin chart, the sort of evolution chart, it starts with an ape? Well, in German books, it ends with some very German-looking person. And at some point, one of my peers said that the ape looks like Nisrin. And the teacher laughed instead of calling them out.
There were many other instances like that, but it was one of those moments where I had a kind of “aha” moment. And that’s when I kind of started imagining being somewhere where people actually spoke back to that kind of racism. And that’s what ultimately got me dreaming about going to America. I met this exchange student who happened to be a person of color, and I asked her, “Well, what’s the racism like in the U.S.?” And she was like, “Well, it’s very different from in Germany, you know, it’s like more systemic, structural. But there are places where you can be yourself and there are other people who look like you.” And that’s what I was missing, as I was in a situation where I was one of maybe two or three black students. I applied to the same boarding school several times, got rejected because I was, like, forging my parent’s signature, writing my own financial aid forms and things like that, because I just didn’t want to tell [my parents]. And then ultimately, I got in and they gave me a scholarship.
You were in Sudan when the Muslim ban started. What happened?
When the Muslim ban hit, I was about 10 months into my research. And mind you, when I went to do the research, I had to go through an extensive process through something called an OFAC licensing process, which is the Office of Foreign Assets Control. If a country is on the state sponsors of terror list and you receive funding through a U.S. agency — I received a grant from the National Science Foundation — you had to go through this whole bureaucratic process of getting approved for your research. And that took a year. So I was already behind my peers by a year. And when the Muslim Ban hit I was basically in the middle of my research. [My partner is] West African, and at the time had a tenuous immigration status. I remember I was scrambling to get a ticket and that was difficult, especially because my grant only allowed me to take certain airlines. So I finally got a ticket that brought me to Bahrain. And then from Bahrain, I went to London and in London, I missed my connecting flight. In part because there was this person in front of me who wouldn’t let me get to the front of the plane. I was wearing the hijab and he was just an angry person. And I was trying to explain to him that I really need to catch this other plane. And he was like, “Yeah, we’re all trying to catch planes.” And I was like, “I understand, but I really need to catch this plane.” And he was like, “Yeah, you’re just going to have to wait.”
So are you assuming that you’re going to be good when you get to the United States? Or do you not really know what’s going on?
I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m assuming I’m still OK, because the executive order was announced while I was in the air. There were rumors of it. I will say between 9/11 and 2017, this time, I basically had been stopped almost every time I entered into the United States and taken to this room for questioning. Under Bush, under Obama. And so to me, that room that I was taken into ultimately was not unfamiliar. But I had never been taken to that room as a green card holder. I remember the first time I traveled with my green card, I walked in and the officer says to me, “Welcome home.” And I had to do a double take because nobody had ever said that to me before. It’s usually like, “I’m sorry, ma’am, you have to be taken to this extra area.” I was used to it, but it always produces anxiety for me. It always means that I have to make special arrangements because my luggage could otherwise be taken or somebody might be waiting there for me for hours. But for the most part, it was a bureaucratic procedure. And so coming in this time, I had traveled a little bit beforehand with the green card and was just not expecting that I would once again find myself in that room. Nor was I expecting that this time I could be deported. Because you shouldn’t as a permanent resident. I have a right to enter the country just as much as anybody else with a passport, like there’s no difference when it comes to permanent residency. The only difference is that we can’t vote.
What happened when you landed?
I get to JFK and I go to the machine where you can put your green card in. And usually this piece of paper comes out with your picture. It comes out with an X. OK, that happens to me all the time. So I go to the officer. I had all my paperwork. And then he goes to his supervisor. He sees the passport and he says, “Isn’t this one of the countries?” And he’s like, “yes.” And he’s like, “what should I do?” And I hear his supervisor tell him, “Just treat her like you would any green card holder.” But as he’s walking back, his supervisor calls him back and says, “Wait a minute.” And he says something to him that I don’t hear. And as he then comes back for the second time, he says to me, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but we have to take you to an extra holding area for further questioning.”
And so at this point, I’m still OK because I’m kind of used to this. And then I get taken in for the first round of questioning, and they explained to me that this executive order had been issued and that people from countries like Sudan were needing to be vetted before entering the country. They asked me to tell them what I’ve been doing in the U.S. And I was like, “OK, I’ve been here for like 25 years. This is going to take a minute.” He was asking me specifically about all the educational institutions that I’ve visited and I’ve been a part of. And he asked me how many languages I spoke. And at some point he tries to get at some of my political views, but they were sort of interwoven, those questions. So he’d go from asking me about boarding school to then asking me about what my viewpoints are on radical Islamic groups. It was sort of obvious what he was trying to get at, like it wasn’t done in the most subtle way. “Did I have any association with people who’ve held radical views in Sudan?” He asked me to list all the people that I had interviewed during my research, which is like 10 months of dissertation research, that’s a lot of people. And then he asked me who my dissertation supervisors were. He asked me about some of the people that I had worked with in different organizations, because he had some of that information on the computer. And then he also at some point asked me about the Trump administration, what I thought of it. And then they asked me about my social media handles and they asked me to basically open Facebook for them. And I had just written some type of post about the Muslim ban, just as I was coming in, about how ridiculous this was. So I was a little nervous about that.
Then at some point they were like, “All right, we really need to call it a night.” It’s like midnight. So they were like, “we’re going to transfer you to a 24 hour holding area”. And I asked them if I could make a phone call. They said “No.” Could I call a lawyer? “No.” They said, “This is a kind of special jurisdictional area. You’re not in the United States yet. You’re in a border zone where we as immigration officers are both lawyer and judge. So your rights are basically suspended in this space, and in order for you to be transferred to this other area, you have to be searched.”
So they took me into this holding room with two women officers. And I had been searched before. But this was a special kind of search. So they put my hands up against the wall. They basically touched me, like searched me, in my groin area and my chest area several times. And I started crying because it felt really uncomfortable. And then they handcuffed me and I asked them what they were going to do, were they going to deport me? And they said they don’t know that. That I just needed to sit tight. And so when I came out of the holding area, I was crying in handcuffs. Then we got transferred to another holding area in a kind of armored vehicle. They had guns on them. We were surrounded, I would say, by about eight to 10 officers in this van. The handcuffs by now were off. There was an Iraqi detainee there. He was a translator for the U.S. military in Iraq who had just gotten asylum and was coming to be reunited with his family. And his family, I believe, were already in. But he had been held. And ironically, he was someone who had risked his life for the U.S. government and was now under detention. And then they separated us. They told us we couldn’t speak to each other. And there was an Iraqi man and an Iranian man who were led in in handcuffs as well.
When we first came into the holding area, they treated us fairly well. But over the course of the night, I felt like we were becoming increasingly criminalized and treated more and more with no dignity. Like, “Shut up, sit down…” We sat there for, I don’t know, God knows how many hours. And then we were being called to the front. “Sudanese green card holder.” So I got called up and he asked me a couple of questions and I had to sit down again. And then again, “Sudanese green card holder.” And then this officer told me that they had done an extensive background check on me. They had not found anything derogatory, that’s the term he used, against me in the system and that I was free to go.
Did you see protesters when you were released?
I got out to an empty airport because I was one of the first people to be detained. My partner was there and a friend. It was like four in the morning. She had followed what was going on and she came with some food, she made some Sri Lankan curry and brought it. I was met by those two people, which was a wonderful way to exit. When I was in the car going back home, I immediately got on the phone with people that I’d been in touch with before, who were trying to figure out what was going on on the inside so they could help other people who were coming in and being detained. I hadn’t slept in like 48 hours. I maybe took a one hour nap, got back up and continued doing phone calls with lawyers, but then also doing a little bit of media work. And I remember when I saw footage of people at JFK, basically 24 hours later. People started coming to the airports. San Francisco, New York City. I saw this footage on the news of a family coming out and they were being reunited with somebody, and there were so many people at the airport. And I just remember thinking it was just a powerful moment, because I couldn’t imagine being a five-year-old. There were five-year-old children who were also handcuffed and detained. And I can’t imagine that experience. And then coming out and people with balloons and welcoming them and basically humanizing the experience for them. I felt like that was an important moment after you get dehumanized like that, to have people kind of do the opposite. Like, stand there and say, “The officers who did this and the administration that told them to do this, told them that this is their job, don’t speak for us.”
There’s been a lot of language from the Biden camp around this issue about still needing America safe, that they will pursue any threat. What do you think about that sort of framing, about an inherent suspicion from these countries or of a Muslim background?
There was a lot of talk after the ban was issued that the countries that were on it were the wrong countries. We shouldn’t be talking about how to expand this list, right? We need to be talking about the premise of this entire thing. For me, it reminded me of the Third Reich. Honestly, this is how these things start. You know, you start to exclude people. You ban them based on their national origin or religion. Where does that lead us? Where could that lead us? And we have examples in history of where that could lead us. And so that should have been a warning. So we should not be talking about how do we expand the structure of this thing to exclude even more people, you know?
The various iterations of it that came after, especially the latest iterations, have been really about banning people from African countries. If there’s anything that I want people to know, it’s that I don’t want people to think of the Muslim ban as an exception. I want them to think of it as symptomatic of an immigration system that from its inception has been racist and xenophobic. So if we look at 1790, the first Naturalization Act gave citizenship to only white people. And then a century later, you have the Chinese Exclusion Act. And ever since you’ve had various iterations of immigration policy that have targeted or excluded people of color and people based on their religion or national origin.
When I think of the legacy of this in modern history, I think of 1996 and the immigration laws that came out under Clinton that criminalized undocumented people. And then leading to the present where the Muslim ban was issued a day after another executive order that essentially poured more money into militarizing our southern border and into expanding ICE and hiring more immigration enforcement officers, again with the intent of criminalizing people that look like me.
The unfortunate thing about my story becoming highlighted was that it sort of eclipsed the stories of the hundreds and thousands of people who never made it to an airport, who never got to be on that plane or who got to an airport, say, in Turkey or Jordan, trying to come to the United States after having waited for an entire 24 months for a visa, to be reunited with their families, or possibly having spent their entire life savings trying to get to the United States, being admitted, say, under the diversity lottery and then being told, “I’m sorry, you can’t board the plane.” So now they’re stuck somewhere waiting for a new administration to come back to them to say, “I’m sorry. Here’s another chance for you.”
So for me, rescinding the ban is only the first step. There’s a lot of work to be done to undo the harm and the trauma that this ban created for so many people, who were denied medical care, who had to postpone weddings, who maybe haven’t seen their child in four years because of this ban. Or have been separated from their partner. I mean, there’s a million scenarios that have been sort of caused by this, that have caused pain and trauma and hurt, as with other immigration policies that the Trump administration passed.
What sort of hopes do you have for a Biden presidency when it comes to immigration?
I want to dream big a little bit and say that I think we have an opportunity to make a clean break and to reimagine our entire immigration system, of which the ban is a very small part. I’ve done a lot of work around prisons, and generally have felt that it’s a very dehumanizing system. But it wasn’t actually until my detention that I felt like we really needed to abolish the system. The procedure that I went through, the sort of invasive search and the handcuffing, when I asked them if it was necessary, they said that this was standard procedure. So it made me think there are hundreds, if not thousands of people who get admitted every day to the United States who are searched and handcuffed in that way, simply for entering this country. And that sends the wrong message. It tells the visitor that you’re not welcome, and their first experience in the United States becomes a dehumanizing one.
And I think what we need to do is create a system where that cannot happen. Why is it that, for example, goods are able to cross borders very easily, but people aren’t? Why is it that NAFTA removed all these trade barriers but the border became more secure and fortified to people moving across the border? And we could, of course, explain this in terms of the logic of capitalism. I think we have to then imagine an immigration system that is not based on profit, that is based on both valuing and respecting people’s humanity and dignity. Ultimately what I want is to live somewhere where I can be with the people that I love the most. And I think most people in the world want that, including Biden, including Donald Trump. I think that needs to be extended to everybody. And so if you can create an immigration system that allows for that, that’s what I want.