A few hours after President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring the entry of immigrants from seven mostly Muslim countries, students at Yale University were already trying to stop it.
Led by law professor Muneer Ahmad, who is a Muslim Pakistani-American, the students set up a “war room” at the university and prepared for an all-nighter working to halt it.
Ahmad arrived on the scene with his partner and young son. In the middle of the chaos, he stopped for a moment and took a photo of the little boy. Down the line he wanted his son to know he was in that room – part of something big, something that might have an effect on his life for decades to come.
By Saturday morning, Ahmad and a group of his students had drafted a motion for a stay and filed a lawsuit with help from other attorneys around the country, including the American Civil Liberties Union. That night, a federal judge in Brooklyn ordered a halt to temporary deportations.
“It’s the first time that this young administration has been set back on his heels,” Ahmad said to a packed room at the University of Miami law school on Monday. “Everything until Friday was about how daring, bold, and erratic it had been. By Saturday, that shifted to the administration being dealt a huge setback, then chaos, then walking things back.”
The fine print
The future of the executive order is murky. Executive orders are only valid if they don’t violate any existing statutes, nor the constitution, he explained. The lawsuit that was filed says this order violates both of these things.
The executive order:
- Issues a 120-day ban on any refugees coming to the United States
- Issues an indefinite ban on any Syrian refugees
- Issues a 90-day ban on any people coming here from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen
- Reduces the cap on the number of f refugees admitted from 110,000 to 50,000 for FY 2017.
- Creates a preference for Christian applicants over Muslims, Ahmad said.
It was also being applied to people who were already arriving with visas and green cards – people who already had prior approval to be in the United States. Now it is not being applied to people with green cards, but coming in from one of these countries with a visa in tow are still not exempt from the ban.
The lawsuit does prevent the government from deporting anyone arriving at the airport, though.
The lawsuit will likely hold action for about a month, Ahmad suspects, but then it’s back to ground zero.
“The situation still very fluid,” he said. “I’m afraid to check my phone to see what’s the newest thing.”
The first step is to stop deportations of people from those countries who are here with valid documents, and get people who are in detention under the executive order out, Ahmad said.
It’s also important to ensure people who are abroad and have a visa can board a plane.
Ahmad says it’s clear the goal of the executive order was to get people out of the country then “seal people off so that no one else gets in.”
He says it’s also critical to allow lawyers into the Customs and Border Protection to represent these people who are being detained.
“What matters is who gets to enter not just the airport or the country, but who is the ‘us?’ Who comprises our sense of ‘us?’,” he asked.
It’s a constantly shifting surface but Ahmad plans to approach this as a “chance to look at things we thought we knew and look at them with a sense of wonder and creativity.”
“I think it will get worse before it gets better, but on some level I knew that something like this was coming. It’s part of the dynamic of the moment we’re in,” he said.
He then pointed out that there was a massive spike in hate crimes after the election and during the campaign season.
The silver lining is the outpouring of support he’s seeing for the Muslim community.
“The airport [demonstrations] are amazing, the chants are amazing. The embrace of the Muslim as a universal figure … one of the symbols of the Women’s March is a woman in a hijab.
That gives me cause for hope that a figure of scorn can be converted into a universal figure,” he said.
“One [chant] I heard was that ‘Muslim rights are human rights.’ I’ve never heard that before. I saw a sign in the West Palm Beach airport that said ‘we are all Muslim.’”
“I’ve never seen that sign before.”