By Sarah Schmidt
With all the changes in immigration and refugee policy initiated by the administration of President Donald Trump, we would like to share the prescient comments and the forward-looking wisdom shared by the panelists at the Impact Center’s November 10, 2016 event, “The Presidential Election and the Muslim Community: Charting a Path Forward.” The four panelists were Nisha Agarwal, Commissioner, NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs; Debbie Almontaser, President, Board of Directors, Muslim Community Network; Kayla Santosuosso, Deputy Director, Arab American Association of New York; and Sadiq Reza, Professor of Law, New York Law School. Professor Deborah N. Archer of New York Law School moderated the panel.
For information on New York Law School’s work on behalf of individuals detained at the John F. Kennedy International Airport, please click here: http://www.nyls.edu/news-and-events/new-york-law-school-dives-unprecedented-immigration-law-challenge/.
Professor Archer moderated the panel with the words “today, those fighting against discrimination in America face a large enemy…” In addressing the reality of the election two days before she said “the election has reminded us that there is so much work left to be done.” She closed her introduction with the words of Maya Angelou, “when someone shows you who they are; believe them.” New York Law School Dean and President Anthony W. Crowell echoed her call-to-action by reminding those in the audience that we have a responsibility to “continue to engage…to enable positive change.” Thamanna Hussain, a first-year law student at New York Law School and a member of the Muslim Law Student Association, stated that, as a result of the election’s outcome, we need to respond by “actively engaging in the political system.” That “together we shall overcome.”
Historical Perspective: September 11, 2001 to Now
Sadiq Reza, a Professor at New York Law School, made a statement that resonated with many of the individuals sitting in the lecture hall: “the fear that people are expressing, is a legitimate fear, [it] is real and palpable and understandable.” He read from remarks that President George W. Bush had made directly after the attack on September 11, 2001. President Bush urged people to have respect for Muslims and their religion. He noted that the acts of violence that millions witnessed on television that day against thousands of innocents “violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.” He stated: “In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.” Professor Reza contrasted President Bush’s response with the language of then President-Elect Trump and noted that we await to “see how Donald Trump will rectify the damage that he has done in this country.”
Responding to the Trump Administration
Debbie Almontaser made the poignant comment that “there is wisdom in this [the outcome of the election].” She stated that the work in combating discrimination isn’t over. She talked about the “heart circles” the Muslim Community Network has been hosting, which are areas for people to come and process the election’s results. Ms. Almontaser stated, “we are going to organize and mobilize and come together collectively…because this is a moral imperative for us.” Her first suggestion was to call the Mayor and ask, “what we’re going to do.” Nisha Agarwal spoke about the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and its mission: “to promote programs and policies that benefit immigrant families.” Ms. Agarwal commented that “we have power every step of the way to impact Donald Trump’s policies: we have power in our hands.”
Ms. Santosuosso and Professor Reza’s observed that immigration policy could be susceptible to changes in executive orders of relief put into place by President Barack Obama. Ms. Almontaser commented that, “spending time on what Obama has done, how it was done, is important. It’s also important to figure out what we are going to do for the next four years.” Ms. Agarwal stated that it’s more a focus on infrastructure questions about the executive power. We need to be prepared to know how “the systems [the governmental branches] work and how to move between them.”
Dean Archer asked, based on a question posed by an audience member, “is it bigoted to call all Donald Trump supporters racists?” Ms. Santosuosso responded that current economic struggle is how most people focused on Trump. “The now difficult work,” she said, “is acknowledging that the pain people are feeling is real.” Our responsibility is now to come from a place of listening. We “often make the mistake of organizing within our own echo chambers.” Going forward, we as a country are going to see continued changes in our racial demographics: “we are almost at the minority being white people.” That terrifies some people who voted for Trump. Ms. Almontaser stated, “We need to dialogue with people who don’t know and understand us.”
Ms. Santosuosso stated there are two “hats” she wears. First, as the Director of the Arab-American Association of New York. Second, as a “white woman who is both fearful and worried about the outcome [of the election] and ashamed.” Ms. Santosuosso replied that the responsibility falls on individuals “like me.” That regardless of the progress that has been made, we are still “facing the same block: mixed-class, white electorate.” It is now our “responsibility to take the road trips [to red states] and have those conversations.”
How Does The Election Affect Children?
The panelists spoke about the impact the election has had on children, considering reports of increased harassment, as well as some of the language used during the campaign. Ms. Almontaser stated individuals need to write letters to the superintendents at the schools to ask, what is going to be done to protect students? She also stated that the Department of Education “has more work to do.” In New York City, Ms. Agarwal pointed out “a lot of their work was happening even prior to the election.” There have been “community safety and fair treatment forums” to discuss public safety concerns and anti-discrimination.
“This is the moment to really feel like you have such an important role no matter what path you are on,” Ms. Agarwal said. “We need to unite as a country… and we need to educate and coalition build. We need to continue processing what we’ve experienced. We need to accept what has happened. We need to come together and really have each other’s back for the next four years,” commented Ms. Almontaser.
Ms. Santosuosso stated that the most constructive work might also be “the most scary,” in that; individuals who have family members who voted for Trump need to have conversations about racism and the potential consequences of having Trump as our President. There are “three things. First, no matter where you are, connect with your local community-based organizations. Second, think about what sort of neighborhood organizing is possible where you live. And, third, when you have a chance to support your friends in rural areas, those trips to do rural organizing, take those trips.”
Professor Reza gave a “call to the law students” to “take immigration law and to work in whatever capacity you can.” Professor Archer gave the final words of the panel discussion: “do not give up. Never just fight for change you’ll see in your life. Fight for change no matter what. Find a way to do what you do best to fight for justice.”