Posted by Guest on July 25, 2017 in Blog

By Sarah Decker

“I was looking for ways to make America great in the world while they were trying to kick us out.”

This is what Iraqi translator Ranj Rafeeq told the Washington Post in response to delayed promises for his citizenship from the U.S. military. Fearing deportation back to Iraq, where he would most likely face violence from ISIS for his efforts to assist the U.S. military, Rafeeq fled to Canada where he signed an enlistment contract in January 2016. As a teenager, Rafeeq was eager to translate for the U.S. troops stationed in his home town, Kirkuk, and he immigrated to Oregon in 2013, hoping to don an Army uniform after completing a graduate degree in Civil Engineering. “I loved American soldiers. It was my dream to be a part of them.”

After promising citizenship to immigrants who served, the Pentagon is now set to help deport them by cancelling enlistment contracts. The Pentagon’s program, designed to leverage medical and language skills of immigrants in exchange for fast-tracked citizenship, has been stunted by additional security measures. Based on internal recommendations from the Defense Department, the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program is being considered for termination – cancelling the contracts of 1,800 recruits like Rafeeq.

Over 1,000 of these recruits have waited so long for citizenship promises that they have fallen out of legal immigration status, meaning that cancelling these contracts would expose these recruits to deportation. Deportation for many, including Rafeeq, is often synonymous with certain death. “I can’t go back to Kirkuk,” Refeeq told the Washington Post. “They would kill me.”

Trump’s policies, such as the Muslim Ban, are limiting America’s artistic and entrepreneurial engagement with the outside world and ironically, even implicating the U.S. military’s ability to collaborate with foreigners in the interest of national security. Already this month, on July 12th, the U.S. hit the annual cutoff of 50,000 refugee admissions for the fiscal year, set by the Trump administration’s executive order. This essentially means that refugees who had been approved after the often years-long vetting process, but were not scheduled to travel on that date, saw their flights cancelled.

This comes at a time when the number of displaced people in the world has hit a historic high of 65.5 million according to a recent report published by the UN. “After we reach 50,000 refugee arrivals for FY2017, only those individuals who have a credible claim to a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States will be eligible for admission through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program,” a State Department spokeswoman told the Huffington Post, referring to a recent Supreme Court decision on Trump’s Executive Order banning travel by refugees and those from five Arab countries and Iran. 

Trump is also reportedly working on fulfilling one of his biggest campaign promises: a dramatic scale-back on legal immigration. Working alongside two conservative senators, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, Trump plans to get behind a bill being introduced later this summer that if signed into law, would by 2027 halve the number of legal immigrants entering the country each year. This bill is a revised and expanded version of legislation that Cotton and Perdue introduced in February, the RAISE Act.

In addition to the Travel Ban and promises to severely curtail legal immigration, the House of Representatives recently passed two laws targeting undocumented immigrants in the U.S.: Kate’s Law (H.R. 3004) and the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act (H.R. 3003). Both were initiated in response to the tragic murder of Kate Steinle by an undocumented immigrant in 2015 and by the perception that all immigrants pose a similar threat. This perception remains groundless; based on census data, undocumented immigrants are 44% less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans.

While the global impact and perceptions of Trump’s policies are clear, perhaps less obvious are the ways in which domestic immigration legislation will impact American lives by stunting key industries including tourism, security, arts, education, food, and technology. The administration’s efforts to clamp down on foreign travel into the country, coupled with proposals to decrease funding to critical tourism platforms has sparked alarm among advocates concerned for key U.S. industries.

Trump has further attempted to raise Transportation Security Administration (TSA) fees and eliminate a U.S. tourism marketing program. On July 11th, the House Appropriations Committee released a bill that rejected that plan. Trump also called for completely gutting the program “Brand USA” to reallocate funding toward border security. The program is a public-private marketing partnership initiated by Congress in 2011 as part of an effort to make the U.S. a top tourist destination for international travelers. According to Oxford Economics, the program’s marketing initiatives are responsible for bringing in 3 million international visitors – generating $21 billion in business sales and supporting 50,000 jobs per year.

This result seems the exact opposite of what Trump, alongside Senators Cotton and Perdue, promised through a revamped immigration system. A Cotton spokeswoman, Caroline Rabbitt, told Politico “He [Sen. Cotton] and Sen. Perdue are working with President Trump to fix our immigration system so that instead of undercutting American workers, it will support them and their livelihoods.”

In addition to negatively impacting the jobs supported by the tourism sector, Trump’s immigration policies also severely limit American influence and exposure to international platforms in art and technology. A group of Syrians invited to stage a play at Lincoln Center faced a tumultuous journey to receive visas, forced to prove that they had a good reason to enter the U.S., that they were not a security threat, and that they had no intention of staying in the country. The director, Omar Abusaada was reportedly asked if he belonged to a terrorist organization. He told the New York Times “I’m going to write a comedy about this.”

The legal turmoil surrounding the Trump administration’s Travel Ban also impacted the ability of an Afghan robotics team to compete in a Washington robotics challenge last Sunday. The team’s mentor, Alireza Mehraban, an Afghan software engineer, told the New York Times that this was an opportunity to change perceptions about the girls’ country. “We’re not terrorists,” he said. “We’re simple people with ideas. We need a chance to make our world better. This is our chance.” The Trump administration eventually reversed the decision not to grant the team visas following international outrage. In an interview before the reversal, one of the six teenage girls on the Afghan team, Noori, expressed her shock to the Guardian, “We thought the US and Afghanistan had friendly relations. We thought the US’s fight for women’s rights and equality would get us visas.”  

The Travel Ban is dramatically changing newcomers’ and foreigners’ perceptions of the U.S. Forcing artists to prove that they are not affiliated with terrorist groups and initially denying the entrance of teenage robotics teams that support female empowerment in Afghanistan echoes a disturbing image of Trump’s new immigration system.

It is critical to recognize the far-reaching and often unforeseen consequences of the administration’s efforts to curtail immigration, which limit America’s ability to engage in global platforms of business, art, and technology. Falling in the face of what Trump has advertised as a move towards a “merit-based” immigration program, the Trump administration’s policies toward visitors, new Americans, and potential Americans deter exactly the type of individuals who would continue to make America great.

Sarah Decker is a Summer 2017 intern at the Arab American Institute.