The Cable

‘It Could Have Easily Been Me’: Why Thousands Joined Protests Against Trump’s Immigration Ban

Military translators, former diplomats, students, and thousands more protested against Trump’s controversial immigration ban over the weekend. Here’s why.


In dozens of cities across the country this weekend, impromptu protests sprung up against the Trump administration’s hastily-drafted executive order banning immigration from a handful of Muslim-majority countries. In Washington, protesters — many reusing signs and placards from previous marches — crowded around the White House, before marching to the Capitol.

The protests were loosely organized; turnout seemed to be driven by word of mouth or through calls to action on social media.

Jasmine El-Gamal, a former translator for the U.S. military in Iraq who was at the demonstrations outside the White House, said the executive order walks back promises to Iraqis who risked life and limb for U.S. troops. Now, several former translators she knows who put their lives on the line and were promised entry to the United States are in immigration limbo. (One Iraqi translator was temporarily detained in New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport over the weekend).

“Our troops can no longer go into the field and promise refuge in America in exchange for cooperation,” she told Foreign Policy. “We’ve alienated an incredibly large swath of Muslims across the Middle East just when we need their help the most,” she added.

Many protesters were immigrants themselves, or had friends or family who had experience with the U.S. immigration system. Refat Ahsan, a student at Virginia Tech who immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh when he was 3 years old and is now a U.S. citizen, told FP he was marching because he feared the ban could be extended to other Muslim-majority countries.

“My older relatives don’t want to leave the country at the moment because they fear that if they leave, they will be next and not allowed to return,” Ahsan said.

About 1,000 people rallied at Chicago O’Hare airport, where a total of 16 people were detained after the immigration ban went into effect. One Chicago demonstrator, Sebastian Gregg, told FP his experience as a U.S. diplomat drove him to protest.

“I’m not usually a big protester. Yesterday was a completely different story, though, and largely due to my experiences as a diplomat,” he said. Gregg, who was a U.S. foreign service officer until 2015, said many current foreign service officers he spoke with were caught flat-footed with the executive order.

“They were simply not prepared for this seismic shift in visa policy, or more specifically were not even informed of the incoming changes,” he said. “Many, if not the majority, are abjectly horrified,” he added. (Many career diplomats are in open revolt over the executive order, drafting a so-called “dissent memo” outlining their concerns to leadership in Foggy Bottom. Lawfare blog published a draft of the memo Monday.)

Other protestors shared that sentiment. Reza Akbari, who was born in Iran and recently became a U.S. citizen, expressed frustration to see people who had immigrated to the United States legally being barred from entry simply because of their country of origin and religion.

“I went through the green card process and jumped through all the hoops to become a citizen,” Akbari told FP. “This is heartbreaking. It could’ve have easily been me.”

Photo credit: JOSHUA LOTT/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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