In the era of this new administration, policies affecting immigration are at an all-time high. A country that used to be an open door to many is now shutting down opportunities for immigrants to enter — including the almost four million of the African diaspora.
“Where are you coming from?”
“How long have you been living in Laredo?”
“Why are you in Laredo?”
“Where are you going?”
“How long will you be driving?”
“Why are you here?”
This wasn’t a game of 21 Questions, but it sure felt like it to 19-year-old Panebi Shirey, the daughter of a Nigerian immigrant and a rising sophomore nursing student at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Texas, as she stopped at the immigration border check on her way home to Houston last December. She was used to these border checks, but this time was different. This time was post-election 2016. Instead of the typical, quick ask about her citizenship status, Panebi was first met with a barrage of other questions — dozens of them — from border agents.
“I felt disrespected,” Panebi says. “It caught me off guard because I didn’t do anything wrong or give any suspicious action of me being an immigrant or me not having papers. For me to be interrogated like that before asking me if I was a citizen, it was degrading.”
Prior to the swearing in of 45, Panebi didn’t experience such issues on her journey from Laredo, which is located along the U.S.-Mexico border, to Houston. The trip had always been fairly simple. She’d just exit off the road to drive through the border check, roll down her window to answer if she was an American citizen, and be on her way. Some officers would ask for documentation, some wouldn’t.
But now, amid renewed talks of constructing a Cold War-era, Berlin-esque border wall along Mexico’s Southern perimeter — in March, Republicans introduced the Border Wall Funding Act of 2017, which would tax person-to-person wire transfers to Latin America and the Caribbean to pay for Trump’s proposed wall — tensions between travelers and customs agents have heightened. “I feel like [Trump’s] mind is not open; it’s very closed,” says Panebi. “America has never really had just one culture. It’s different everywhere you go, so to make immigration such a big thing now is tearing our country apart.”
FIGHTING FOR FAMILY
The threat of deportation is very real in the age of 45, so not only is the country more divided, families are being split up, as well. As early as February, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents began raiding immigrant neighborhoods, arresting undocumented people in their homes and out on the streets. A few days after, Trump issued orders for all customs officials to find, arrest, and deport every illegal immigrant they encountered. It also gave local police the authority to profile anyone they thought looked to be an immigrant and question them.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Trump’s proposals to deport millions of undocumented immigrants may go against the Constitution. “Massive immigration enforcement would erode civil liberties of undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens alike by leading to a systematic reliance on racial profiling and illegal detentions,” the organization wrote in their guide to Trump’s memos. “Such a campaign would result in rampant Fourth Amendment and Equal Protection violations.” They went on to say that mass deportations would violate the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.
While Panebi’s mother, originally from Nigeria, is a naturalized citizen, she knows of people who are not. The rise of talks of future action that could potentially deport immigrants to their native countries makes Panebi uncomfortable. With all the speculation, she’s even begun to wonder if immigrating to America was the best choice. “Immigration is something to be celebrated. It’s the opportunity for new ideas, new religions, new traditions,” Panebi says. The question is, is the opportunity really worth it? Is the opportunity of America worth all the trouble with immigration?”
Zariyah Morvan thinks so. Growing up in the Bronx, the now 19-year-old was exposed to nothing but immigrants, with the majority hailing from the Caribbean and Central and Latin America — her own parents from the Caribbean island of Dominica. Zariyah takes pride in the love that New York City has for immigrants, and is irritated at how Trump seems so set on disrupting that. “I’m from New York, and we thrive off immigration. New York City would not be what it is without immigrants, immigration, tourism, any of that,” she says.
Zariyah’s mother came to the states almost 22 years ago for school, as there weren’t any well-established universities in the West Indies when she became of college age. Her mother, and the rest of her immigrant relatives, are all in the U.S. legally. Zariyah’s biggest fear, though, is that with a snap of a finger, what they gained here could all be taken away from them. “His words are inflammatory,” she says of Trump. “I know the judicial and legislative branches are doing their best, at the end of the day, to check him, but it’s just concerning. I’m doing my best to keep it off my mind and not speak things into existence.” Zariyah’s got a strong faith to keep her moving forward, and constantly reminds herself that God put her here, and put certain people in her life, for a reason.
Aspiring psychologist Mageb Mofor, 19, and her siblings are children of Cameroonian immigrants — their father is a lawyer and their mother is a special education teacher. “My parents came here because they wanted a better future,” Mageb says. “They saw this new life, and they always saw [the perception of] America and Americans, and they wanted to see what they could make of it.”
But now, for some, getting through immigration and customs might not be an option.
On Jan. 27, 2017, Trump issued an initial executive order to temporarily ban citizens of seven majority Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) from entering the United States. News of the ban sparked protests, and the ban itself also triggered chaos at airports, as previously approved people from these countries were arriving only to be detained. “It’s one thing when you hear it on the news, but it’s another thing when you hear it from cousins or relatives or close friends that they’re being held in the airport, and airport security is going through their cell phone,” says Panebi.
“It’s not fair,” says Mageb. “They say everyone is equal. They say, ‘What about American kids’ futures?’ but what about other kids’ futures, other kids that want a chance?”
KNOWING THE LAW
The travel ban didn’t just worry people fresh off the plane or those who were scheduled to arrive in the near future; it also invoked fear in immigrants who had been here awhile, explains Ibiene Inyang, a former immigration lawyer and naturalized citizen, originally from Nigeria. She believes that with the current administration, especially, immigrants aren’t fully aware of their rights. “I’ve seen an increase in legal immigrants who have proper visas or who are here on permanent resident green card status, who just assume that some of these actions that are being taken right now apply to them,” Inyang says. “They can’t just round you up unless there’s a reason.”
Still, anyone with a grasp of world history understands that things could change in an instant. “My parents are citizens. Some of my family members are citizens,” says Mageb. “[But] Trump is wishy-washy. He could flip at any time.”
Inyang does admit, though, that the only thing easy about the process of immigration in the U.S. is making that process harder. “Immigration law has never been innocent until proven guilty,” she says. “It would be more difficult to make the process easier given the political climate. There’s a presumption of criminality of being here illegally that because you’re here, you’re here to do bad things.” It doesn’t matter that this has not been proven, and she predicts that, for immigrants of color, the process will continue to be challenging.
“It’s super hard to come to the U.S.,” says Inyang. “[But] when you completely ban a group of people [when it was] obviously already difficult for them to come in, it reeks of the religious intolerance that is coming out right now in this current administration … history is not on the side of this ban.”
So until Trump’s attacks on immigrants stop, it’s up to all of us to resist in any way we can. Contact your senators and House representatives, hold a demonstration, attend town halls, and acknowledge and embrace each other’s differences. “Different doesn’t mean ‘other,’” says Inyang. “Different doesn’t mean ‘bad.’ Different means ‘different.’”
This article originally appeared in Sesi’s Summer 2017 issue. Subscribe here to get the current issue, on sale now.