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Immigration orders hit Berkeley community close to home

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FEBRUARY 03, 2017

Zeinab is used to waiting. She’s an Iranian-Canadian dual citizen in her fourth year on campus pursuing a doctorate in applied sciences.

Like many international students, she has used her vacation time traveling abroad to go back home. But like all non-U.S. citizens from Iran, she is used to accounting for time she must spend waiting, from two to six months, so she can re-enter the U.S. each time she leaves.

Students from Iran must go through a lengthy security process each time they enter the United States. She recounted that her fiancé, a UC Berkeley alumnus and Iranian citizen, didn’t return home for six years to avoid the re-entry process until he acquired his green card. Now, she says, he doesn’t know whether he can leave the United States.

Zeinab estimates she has spent about five to six months throughout her doctoral career waiting for clearance, sometimes into the start of the semester.

Citing reports of border social media checks, she requested the omission of her last name from this article, as she is among the estimated hundreds of UC Berkeley community members directly affected by executive orders issued last week by President Donald Trump.

Though she has come to expect the waiting, she said she was heartbroken to learn that as a result of a new executive order, she cannot leave the country and lawfully re-enter for the next three months.

In his first week in office, Trump has inspired numerous national controversies through statements and executive orders. In Berkeley — a city that voted overwhelmingly against him — he has left a community reeling in a state of outrage and uncertainty.

Under a new administration

Last week, Trump issued two executive orders within days of each other, both aimed at tightening borders and cracking down on illegal immigration.

The first, announced Jan. 25, added thousands of agents to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and threatened federal funding cuts to sanctuary cities.

Another order Jan. 27 banned the immigration of non-U.S. citizens from seven Muslim majority countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — for 90 days and indefinitely suspended the entry of Syrian refugees. The following evening, a federal judge ordered a temporary stay on the ban, allowing for the release of those detained at airports but leaving the executive order in place.

The campus estimates that approximately 200 nonimmigrant students and scholars and their dependents from the restricted countries are directly affected by the order.

This estimate does not include those with green cards, researchers or those who are employed on campus and may have obtained a visa from another school, according to UC Berkeley spokesperson Janet Gilmore. According to campus Associate Chancellor Nils Gilman, at least one UC Berkeley student trying to enter the country was barred.

The campus’s Undocumented Student Program has compiled a detailed FAQ for understanding how students are affected by the executive orders.

A state of disbelief

When Atrin Sarmadi discovered that his mother could not attend his graduation, she told him not to worry but instead to focus on his work — the reason he came to the United States.

Her visa interview was canceled Saturday, after Trump’s order suspended Iranian immigration for non-U.S. citizens for the next three months. But Sarmadi, a graduate student studying chemical engineering, said that now, his plans after graduation will inevitably change.

“But I felt really loved afterwards,” Sarmadi said of the executive order. “A lot of my friends here called me and gave me their support and said, ‘If you need me, we’ll be around for you.’ Seeing people, how they welcome people like me — that’s great to see.”

As a means to cope and process the past week, UC Berkeley’s Muslim Student Association held a peaceful group prayer in front of Sproul Hall on Tuesday to provide an opportunity for the community to understand the Islamic faith.

“(Trump) is not banning countries. He is banning Islam, banning Muslims,said Hani Hussein, a campus junior from Somalia, one of the countries Trump specified in his executive order.

Hussein added that she has always felt particularly vulnerable as a Muslim woman. She said she is not ready to put her life “on hold” and stay here permanently. She was looking forward to the chance to study abroad.

UC Berkeley international and area studies lecturer Crystal Chang was surprised by how quickly Trump turned his campaign promises into policy.  

“I wrongly assured my students, ‘Oh, he wouldn’t possibly make that a top priority,’ ” Chang said. “I couldn’t see what the practical benefit of such an action would be when he became president.”

Several Trump supporters, however, anticipated he would use his executive power once elected, including David Craig, treasurer of the Berkeley College Republicans.

“The beauty of Obama’s executive overreach is that now that Trump owns the pen and the phone, he can undo much of it just as easily,” Craig said in an email.

Local government and campus reaction

Sanctuary cities, which Trump has alleged illegally refuse to enforce federal immigration laws, have been targeted in his executive order on public safety. The 10th Amendment, however, legally exempts state and local governments from following certain federal demands.

Berkeley, a “City of Refuge” since 1985, could lose millions in federal funding as a result of the order. In the 2015 fiscal year, the city received about $11.5 million, most of which went toward housing and homelessness programs.

In response, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin joined the mayors of San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland in a joint statement reacting to the order, condemning it and promising their constituents that local immigration-related policies would not change.

“I think the most important thing is for (citizens) to understand that our City Council members and our mayor are not going to stand for that, even if it means we (lose) money,” said City Councilmember Sophie Hahn.

Celine Bookin, BCR’s head of communications, said sanctuary cities send the wrong message on an international level, though she understands their purpose. She said the cities paint the United States as a safe haven for illegal immigrants who have committed crimes, normalizing such behavior.

Dani Sundell/Senior Staff
Dani Sundell/Senior Staff

Though the UC Office of the President does not officially consider the UC system a “sanctuary” university, the UC Board of Regents last week affirmed its existing pledge not to use campus law enforcement to assist ICE investigations.

The Berkeley campus alone receives about $370 million from the federal government in research funding and $200 million in federal student loans. While Trump has not directly threatened the UC system over its commitment to undocumented students, he threatened to pull federal funding from UC Berkeley in a tweet Thursday in response to violence at anti-Milo Yiannopoulos protests.

Were UC Berkeley to refuse cooperation with ICE, the government could only withhold federal grants related to immigration enforcement, according to UC Berkeley School of Law professor Leti Volpp.

From this point forward

Zeinab described the uncertainty surrounding the recent executive orders as a kind of “psychological torture.”

“One of the reasons I left Iran was that I felt like I didn’t belong there, that the government didn’t care about my priorities as a citizen,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking, because it’s (in) the United States that this is happening, too.”

Chris Zepeda-Millan, a UC Berkeley ethnic studies assistant professor who teaches a course on social movements, said citizens have a duty to challenge actions by the Trump administration that go against their values.

“When something is this chaotic and un-well-thought-out, I think the best thing to do is to try to point out that chaos and resist it in as many ways as possible,” Zepeda-Millan said.

Arturo Fernandez, an undocumented doctoral student in statistics, emphasized the importance of solidarity with other communities that are especially affected by the administration’s actions.

On Inauguration Day — the first Friday of the current semester — about 1,000 faculty, staff and students participated in a campuswide walkout in protest of Trump’s presidency. UC Berkeley students joined hundreds Jan. 28 at San Francisco International Airport, protesting the detaining of the first travelers affected by the order.

“I wish I could reach out and show (Trump supporters) how this is not making the country safer, how it’s affecting real people who are helping the country,” Zeinab said.

Contact Alex Barreira and Gibson Chu at [email protected].

FEBRUARY 03, 2017

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