The Arab American Struggle for an Inclusive Immigration System

On the last weekend of January in 2017, thousands of protesters gathered in cities and at airports across the country. ‘”No hate, no fear,” they chanted in opposition to one of Donald Trump’s first executive actions on immigration: a ban that put an immediate halt on refugee admissions and a ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim, mostly Arab countries.

The “Muslim Ban” devastated families – Muslim, and non-Muslim — in real time. Parents, spouses, children, and siblings were suddenly separated from their families. Many remained separated for years, and some continue to be separated to this very day. Arab communities as a whole were hit hard; children grew up feeling they did not belong in the same way as did others, constantly battling the perception by some of being a threat.

Despite the protests and some successful legal challenges, by the end of the Trump presidency, the ban had remained fully in place with the Supreme Court’s blessing, and many more countries had been added to the list.

On his first day in office, President Biden rightfully overturned Trump’s racist travel ban. While this was an important first step, there is still a very long road to undo the harms inflicted on Arab communities, not only by the ban itself, but also by the many discriminatory policies that predated it and that continue to this day.

The reality is that throughout this nation’s history and well before Donald Trump, Democratic and Republican administrations alike have sanctioned programs that have broadly shut out entire Arab communities from the U.S. immigration system. Unlawful and racist policies like the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program (CARRP), Terrorism-Related Inadmissibility Grounds (TRIG), and broadly interpreted material support laws have blocked entire Arab communities from the United States’ immigration system for decades.

The harmful “national security” framing used by the Trump administration was entrenched in this country long before Donald Trump took office. It is a framing that has long been used to stoke fear and to “otherize” communities, and it is one that many Arab Americans have battled internally and externally in their journey to make this country feel like home.

Arab American identity is complicated. There is a perception among some that we are a new community, but in reality we have long-standing roots in the United States, and in many ways a long history of trying to figure out who we are and where we belong in this country.

Historically, there has been a pervasive idea in our Arab American community that we must keep our heads down and not cause problems. This idea has slowed us down from becoming politically activated to our full potential — but younger generations are changing this: they are becoming activated and involved in the fight to claim our place in this country, especially in the aftermath of Trump.

For first-generation Arab immigrants like myself, who came to the United States later in life, part of claiming our belonging turns out to be the fight to make this country more inclusive for everyone. The fight is not just for Arab Americans, but for all immigrants, especially those who are most marginalized and cast aside. Our fight to belong is part of a larger fight for empowerment and a system that allows everyone to live freely and to flourish.

During this Arab American Heritage Month, I look forward to continuing my work alongside my community and other marginalized groups to affirm our belonging in this country and to fight for policies that help us all thrive — policies that are truly rid of all hate and fear. Together, we must fight to ensure that the Biden-Harris administration — and the administrations that follow — understand the complexity and diversity of our Arab American community and uphold our values of compassion and respect for everyone’s rights in both word and policy.


AILA members attending AILA’s virtual annual conference are invited to join the National Immigration Project on Friday, June 11, 2021 at 6:00 PM (ET) to celebrate its 50th anniversary year and to honor 2021 Member Honoree, Elora Mukherjee, for her tireless, fierce advocacy for immigrant justice.

by Sirine Shebaya