President Trump’s travel restrictions have locals on edge
NORTH SMITHFIELD — Saying worshippers are growing increasingly worried about a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, the leader of one of the state’s largest mosques is calling for a meeting of the governor, state and local police to discuss security.
Imam Ikram Haq of Masjid Al Islam on Sayles Hill Road said worshippers were already concerned after President Donald Trump issued an executive order restricting travel for at least three months for nationals of seven Middle Eastern and African countries where Islam is the dominant religion.
Then, on Sunday night, shortly after worshippers left the mosque for the daily prayer service, news broke that two men brandishing firearms attacked worshippers at a mosque in Quebec City, Canada, killing six and leaving eight others critically injured.
“Our community, the Muslim community throughout the United States, is outraged and upset,” said Imam Ikram. “This executive action does not make any sense. We understand he’s fulfilling one of his campaign promises, but right now he is the leader of the United States and he should care for all Americans.”
The imam – sort of the Muslim equivalent of a Christian pastor – had spoken against the executive order during a rally outside the Statehouse on Sunday afternoon. Hours later, the incident in Quebec City seemed to add an exclamation point to the community’s concerns about an increasingly hostile atmosphere for Muslims.
“What’s urgent on our minds now is the peace and security of worshippers because of what happened in Québec City,” he said.
Founded in 1994, Masjid al Islam is one of a handful of mosques in the state. Imam Ikram said there are perhaps 3,000 members of the Muslim faith in the state – about 500 of whom are regular worshippers at Masjid al Islam, making it one of the largest communities of Muslims in the area.
The faithful of Masjid al Islam come from a smorgasbord of countries where Islam is a dominant religion – some on the no-travel list and some not.
About 1,000 people turned out for the rally in Providence on Sunday – a small crowd compared to protests in other major cities – as news of Trump’s unexpected executive order spread across the country. Issued Friday afternoon, the order bans travel to the U.S. by citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen for three months pending further review.
Additionally, the president also suspended the admission of all refugees into the U.S., no matter where they come from, for up to 120 days and terminates the acceptance of all refugees from Syria indefinitely. Members of the Trump administration said the crackdown is aimed at preventing terrorists from coming into the United States.
Critics across the country, like New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, assailed the crackdown as “un-American” and “mean-spirited.” In Providence, Gov. Gina Raimondo said it flies in the
face of the bedrock principles that led Roger Williams to settle the state as a haven of religious freedom and tolerance.
Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus went on national television Sunday to clarify some of the administration’s previous assertions about how broadly the executive order would apply to foreign nationals who hold “green cards,” which means they’re already legal residents of the United States. Priebus said it’s likely that some green card holders who travel back and forth from the banned countries to the United States could be subject to increased scrutiny from customs and immigration authorities.
“This is all done for the protection of Americans,” Priebus said on NBC TV’s “Meet the Press.” “President Trump is not willing to get this wrong, which is why he wants to move forward and protect Americans.”
But Pawtucket immigration lawyer David Borts said “there is no rational basis” for the executive order and it was rolled out with sloppy interagency coordination by the administration.
“Right now what you’ve got is total chaos,” he said. “The real question is what happens next.”
Even conservative think tanks have taken issue with the administration’s rationale for choosing the seven countries on the no-travel list. Borts said the nexus to terrorist incidents in the United States is much easier to document for some Middle Eastern countries that aren’t on the list. For example, the terrorists who commandeered the jetliners that took down the Twin Towers on 911 were all from Saudi Arabia – an incident Trump references in the preamble to the executive order – but Saudi Arabia isn’t on the notravel list.
Administration officials, Borts said, tried to “walk back” some of the initial assertions about how holders of green cards might be affected. As he now understands the intent, Borts said the administration is saying green card holders might not necessarily be barred from entry but they could be subject to “secondary inspections” at U.S. airports.
“A secondary inspection can be pretty nasty,” said Borts. It means travelers can be pulled aside and questioned privately by one or
more customs or border protection officers. There is no right to counsel during such interrogations, which Borts said could typically include “some pretty tough questions” about party affiliation and religious beliefs. “Then they’ll make a decision on whether you’ll be allowed to re-enter,” he said.
With proper planning, immigration can be a powerful tool to strengthen the country and grow the economy, said Borts. Though the system appears to have been thrust into disarray at the moment, he’s optimistic that the president’s order will cause Americans to take a closer look at the issues and make positive changes.
“This is all based on fear and irrationality, but maybe we’ll learn some stuff,” he said.
In nearby Central Falls, the executive order rankled City Councilman Thomas Lazieh, a second-generation Syrian American who is also president of St. Basil the Great Melkite Catholic Church, in Lincoln. Many of the church members have family ties to Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.
Lazieh said Trump’s executive order strikes at the very heart of what it means for him to be an American.
“I am the son of a Syrian refugee,” said Lazieh. “My father left Syria in 1921 to escape religious persecution by the Ottoman Turks. If Donald Trump were president we would not have been able to come to the United States.”
Lazieh said he has family in the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo who are caught up in the civil strife. Not all of them want to leave, Lazieh said, but there are some who do and for now Trump’s executive order means that prospect is no longer on the table.
“Now it’s relatively impossible to even apply or to be considered at this time,” he said.
He said he intends to submit a resolution asking fellow members of the City Council to take a stand against Trump’s executive order on immigration at the next meeting of the City Council.
“This is wrong,” said Lazieh. “This is not the American way.”