This past week has been like one from an alternate reality: it started with the incredible Women’s March on January 21, when close to five million people, led by women, insisted on justice and equal rights for all in a series of protests across the world. And then, the assault of Trumpian executive orders began.
In just one week since he assumed office as US president on January 20, Donald Trump had reinstated the “global gag rule” that bans US-funded non-profits to advocate or counsel women about abortions, thereby denying safe access to pregnancy termination and birth control; revived the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the US and the Dakota Access Pipeline that was stopped after protests by native Americans, thus thwarting valiant efforts of indigenous peoples and environmental advocates; eliminated 25 grant programmes for organisations addressing violence against women and denied federal funding to sanctuary cities like New York and San Francisco that protect and shelter illegal immigrants.
Then came the much-feared Muslim ban – Trump’s latest executive order came on Friday and bars immigration from seven Muslim countries (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen), although the list is likely to grow.
On Friday night, I went to bed wondering how long it would take for these executive orders to be implemented – on Saturday morning, I had my answer. I woke up to the news that dozens of people from Muslim countries were already being detained at airports around the US. These were people who had green cards and valid visas, parents visiting their children and grandchildren settled in the US, a refugee family from Syria that was finally leaving the hell of a camp to start a new life, and even people who consider America home because they have lived here for many years and have lives, families and homes here. The implementation of policies rooted in bigotry, xenophobia and Islamophobia had begun.
I was one of the 2,000 protesters who spent a freezing Saturday at the Terminal 4 Arrivals at New York’s Kennedy International Airport, chanting: “Let them in!” and “Love not hate, makes America great!” and “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!”
There were similar protests in airports across the US, with a strong showing from elected officials denouncing the ban. Legal advocates and elected officials have tirelessly worked on behalf of the detainees, but so far, only one has been allowed to enter the country.
On Saturday evening, we celebrated a victory: the American Civil Liberties Union won a temporary stay on President Trump’s immigration order and at least for now, deportation of those who are legally permitted to enter the US will not be allowed. No doubt this will be challenged, and we will need to keep fighting.
I am a Hindu American from India, an immigrant myself. My parents moved from Andhra Pradesh to England when I was a child to give us a better life. I grew up in both Chennai and London, and moved to the US as a young adult. I visit India regularly, and have been painfully aware of the Hindu nationalism that has taken power there with Narendra Modi’s election. This is a time in India when the civil rights of Muslim, Dalit, LGBT and other minority communities are in peril. Freedom of expression is under threat. I fear that the US is on that same path under Trump.
It is important for all immigrants, including Indian Americans, to speak up against these racist and Islamophobic laws and policies. Most of us left our homelands and came to this country seeking new opportunities, eager to build new lives.
The immigrants from these Muslim countries are no different from us. If we open our eyes and hearts, we will see ourselves in all immigrants, including those who are currently being cruelly detained, harassed and in many cases, denied entry. The fear is that these people might be terrorists, but so many of them are fleeing the very violence and terrorism they are suspected of.
I am a women’s rights activist and work daily with Muslim men and women who devote their lives to this cause. My Muslim colleagues tell me that their faith obligates them to work for the rights and empowerment of women and girls. Many of my colleagues and their families will be affected by this heartless and unconstitutional ban.
Policies rooted in racism and bigotry may target only one group today but can just as easily target another tomorrow. India may not be on the target list at the moment, but certainly could be in the future. Furthermore, such racist policies embolden bigots in the society and have already led to an increase in hate crimes towards all people of colour. A bigot sees no difference between Indians, Iraqis and Yemenis or Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.
If any Indian thinks they are superior to immigrants from Yemen, Iraq, or other Muslim countries, they are in for a rude awakening. I truly believe that justice denied on the basis of religion or race shakes the very foundations of democracy and leads to justice being denied for all.
As a mother, as an immigrant, and as a Hindu who believes to my core that we are all one, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, I pledge to resist the Trump administration’s policies of hatred. And I ask all Indian Americans to resist with me.
Sunita Viswanath is a co-founder and board member at Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus.