Exactly one week after his inauguration, President Donald Drumpf signed an executive order temporarily banning travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. The ban, which the White House later revealed had not been run by officials at the Justice Department, set off a chain of chaotic events.
The ban affected green card and visa holders, some were in the air on flights to the U.S. at the time the ban was enacted. Others were set to enter the country shortly. Impromptu protests broke out at major international airports across the country and lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union filed motions seeking that courts stay the order.
Judge Ann M. Donnelly of the US District Court in Brooklyn, NY was the first to rule to stay the order, indicating that sending travellers home “could cause irreparable harm.” Minutes later a judge in Virginia ruled similarly. However, the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement the following days saying they would continue to enforce the ban.
The acting U.S. Attorney General, Sally Yates, typically the post responsible for enforcing the president’s orders, instructed the Justice Department not to do so because the ban was not constitutional. At that point President Drumpf fired Yates.
The ban has faced a strong negative response worldwide and within the Mercer community from those who support immigrant rights. A recent VOICE survey of Mercer students, faculty and staff found that 96 percent of those surveyed knew of the ban and 88 percent said they opposed it.
Nineteen percent of survey respondents said they knew at least one fellow student on a student visa, and the college’s President Dr. Jianping Wang told The VOICE, “We do have students from those regions [affected], definitely.”
In September 2016 The New York Times reported that hate crimes against Muslim Americans were already at the highest levels seen since 9/11. The FBI annual crime statistics showed that in one year reported anti-Muslim hate crimes had increased by 67 percent.
In an interview with The VOICE, Nagiyd Ewell, a Muslim student in her second year studying Graphic Design, said, that while she generally feels comfortable at Mercer things are different beyond the campus.
“There are attacks [on Muslims] going on all the time. It has been going on since 9/11 and has just gotten worse.” Ewell said.
Ewell, whose father is African American and mother Puerto Rican, was born in the United States. Her parents converted to Islam before she was born. She chooses to wear the hijab for modesty, but says some of her siblings do not.
Although she says she has not experienced any animosity at Mercer, she has dealt with verbal attacks since she was a kid, especially in middle school. “That was a big thing. [The kids would say] ‘Go back to your country!’ which is really hilarious because I’m already here…It’s kind of, I don’t know, normal?” Ewell says, adding: “it sucks, but it’s not surprising.”
Dr. Wang told The VOICE, “We have an increased number of instances on campus where [there are] certain verbal attacks to students who are different from us, and there are other members of this community who will say things like ‘why don’t you go back to your country’.”
However, Dr. Wang says the reason the incidents are not reported to security is “fear, fear of retaliation, fear of retribution, fear of becoming the target of hate crimes. These people are very fearful.”
Director of College Safety, Bryon Marshall, when asked whether unofficial reports of verbal attacks have increased said, “Yes, I do agree with that, absolutely.” He added, ”Are there tensions? Absolutely.”
Mercer’s Muslim Student Association, previously known as the Islamic Student Group, was created in the late 90’s and says its goal is to spread awareness of the religion of Islam and also provide information for those that are interested.
Adviser M. Nichole Pollard-Alford, who works in the Financial Aid office, told The VOICE that of the 15-20 students in the group one is from Iran, a country on the banned list.
Asked to comment on Muslim student difficulties since the ban, Pollard-Alford said, “Generally it’s just a lot of uncertainty. It has already been tense. I think this brings a lot of feelings to the surface, the feelings of concern. Some individuals are choosing not to wear religious covering so they can assimilate and not stand out like a sore thumb.”
Despite the majority of students surveyed being against the ban, there are individuals at Mercer who say they support it.
“Drumpf had the right to institute a ban,” says Richard Berke, a close to retirement student who takes classes to keep his mind sharp. Berke’s father had emigrated from Russia to Egypt, and then to the United States. “We have laws on immigration that need to be followed, that haven’t been followed in the past.”
Berke referred to President Clinton’s State of the Union address in 1995 which had expressed similar tightening of immigration, but had been received with a standing ovation in Congress. Referring to the people who saw the ban as anti-muslim, Berke said “[they are] making it a religious thing because of political correctness.”
According to Dr. Wang, Mercer has faced similar situations and she has made her stance on the subject clear. “I think this order represents a spirit of exclusion” she said, “and that’s not what we value in this country.” Dr. Wang, along with 600 college and university presidents, signed a statement calling for the U.S. to continue upholding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows undocumented immigrants in the United States, who entered as minors, to receive a two-year period where they are unable to be deported and can also receive a work permit.
Mercer’s administration has also responded to the ban by increasing their hands-on involvement, with Bryon Marshall bringing awareness to two safe rooms, also known as a “freedom room”. Within these rooms, students are free to express their religious and personal beliefs without fear of having their voices suppressed.
It is not clear whether these rooms are intended for prayer, but Nagiyd Ewell told The VOICE that she has sometimes resorted to praying in empty classrooms because she was not aware of any designated space for Muslim students to pray.
Just once, Ewell said, she encountered what felt like profiling by a professor. “It was a Photography class and I was explaining [to the professor] how I was shy about taking pictures of people…and he made a comment that was basically ‘Yeah, looking like how you do’.” The instructor assumed wearing her hijab was something that would make other people nervous, or make her feel shy.
Ewell says she brushed it off like all the negative comments she has received. She is currently working, studying optometry and looking for ways to raise the visibility of Muslim Americans.