“We are asking for your cooperation!” intoned the mechanical amplified voice on Saturday night outside JFK Airport Terminal 4 in New York City. The hundreds of people who poured out to oppose President Trump’s anti-Muslim travel and refugee ban at the airport suddenly found themselves on the front lines of a geopolitical crisis. Trump’s sweeping executive order stopping refugees from entering the United States for 120 days and, further, explicitly barring people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for 90 days spurred spontaneous protests at airports across the country. Within 24 hours, the order was suspended by several courts, and the administration was scrambling to defend itself against international condemnation. Once again, Trump’s attempt to declare a border war met resistance from globally facing cities and democratically rooted courts nationwide.
The protest dynamics recalled the early days of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, with that potent swirl of anarchy and militancy that supercharged each confrontation with the police. After cops had cleared the street in front of the airport and pushed protesters onto the sidewalks, Robert Ross, a pink knitcap–sporting New Hampshire transplant, reflected on challenging Trump from a corner of the nation that seemed increasingly distant from his Trump-supporting home state.
“The number one priority is to defend and protect those communities that are most likely to be hit by all of these bullshit policies,” Ross said. While that could “widen the rift and that alienation that’s already begun [in] those polarized segments of our community…. the rest we’ll figure out somehow…but this is urgent.”
The urgent climate overhanging JFK Airport carried historical resonance as well. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, New York was the battlefront of another crisis of executive power, also in the form of a massive anti-immigrant clampdown. During those decades, the Justice Department used the Alien Registration Act, which banned US citizenship for foreign-born communists, to sweep scores of immigrant activists into detention and deportation proceedings. Leftists lashed out at the persecution of communists under the guise of “national security” during those years, and progressives of all stripes understood that the aggression against migrants portended a wider impending mass suppression of constitutional freedoms and political dissent.
Over the weekend, a Federal District judge in Brooklyn issued an emergency order to shield some travelers from immediate deportation, citing “imminent danger [of] substantial and irreparable injury to refugees, visa-holders, and other individuals.” The full legal review of the executive order could take months, however, and there’s little guarantee Homeland Security officials will adhere to the injunction. But on Sunday, the administration seemed to climb down somewhat, claiming that green-card holders and dual nationals would not be blocked, just subject to stringent questioning—perhaps.
Countless others around the world who had not yet made it to the United States still face indefinite banishment, including students, artists, scholars, and refugees previously authorized to enter the country. The ban’s scope is further complicated by another historical throwback—plans to exempt persecuted Christians from the ban—evoking the most blatantly racist immigration policies of the Chinese Exclusion Era, which stretched from the mid-19th through early 20th centuries.