The United States has a long and proud history as an immigrant nation. But those communities have been left paralyzed by fear following President Donald Trump’s sweeping immigration reforms.
Talk of a border wall with Mexico coupled with legal challenges to the President’s executive actions on immigration and a rise in hate crimes post-election, have left many feeling like outsiders in a country they once wholeheartedly embraced.
Now with federal agents scooping up hundreds in a series of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operations, immigrants — here legally, some with American citizenship — reveal what it’s like to live in limbo and become marginalized with the flick of a pen.
… trying to act American
Arya Patole is a 26-year-old social worker living in Brooklyn, New York. Along with her family, she emigrated to the United States from India as a child, becoming a naturalized citizen 17 years ago.
“Even though I do have immigrant attached to my identity, I feel like I have assimilated so much into America that I felt like an American,” she told CNN, adding “But ever since this election and (Trump’s) rhetoric, it made me feel othered so quickly.”
It’s hardly the first time Patole has felt ostracized for the color of her skin but since 9/11, she says her family has learned to navigate their lives through any suspicion or hostility.
“We are brown and we kind of look ethnically ambiguous at times,” she said. As a result, Patole and her family make sure to adhere to TSA rules when traveling and “try our best to look American.”
But their coping mechanisms have had to go up a notch since Trump’s travel ban. Her father has suggested that she and her brother, who is also a naturalized citizen, carry their passports with them in case they need to prove their citizenship if conditions escalate.
“I guess it’s kind of a safety plan,” she said. “Our fear is how far this could be taken … if we ever stopped in any way or were asked questions, we would be able to have documentation.”
… reminding others that some fled war
If Trump’s executive order — which temporarily suspended all refugees from entering the US — had been in place six months ago, 45-year-old Ali Mohammed would not be in America.
“Thank God. I can now enroll my children in school. There is now hope in life. Before coming here, there was no hope for us.”
Four years ago, his family fled their town in Syria as the war there intensified. Traveling first to Beirut then onto Egypt, it was an uphill battle to start again. Mohammed wasn’t allowed to work nor was he eligible for government support; while his children were not allowed to register for school.
Through a refugee organization, they applied for asylum in the United States and after two years of intense vetting and exhaustive interviews, the family moved to Clarkston, Georgia, where they were welcomed by “kind” and “goodhearted people.”
A former cameraman and assistant producer for Syrian television shows, Mohammed now works odd jobs to make ends meet.
“(Trump) has to understand that no one came here because they wanted to. We didn’t choose to be refugees. We had no choice,” said Mohammed, who is taking English classes in the hopes of finding a better job.
But with the travel ban before the courts in Virginia and a potential appeal coming from the administration, deportation is a constant worry for the father of four.
“Deportation is our biggest fear. Not just mine, but for all refugees. If America kicks us out, where will we go? I certainly can’t go back to Syria. What will happen to my family?” he said.
“We are people who want to work, to build a life. If we came to America that means we are escaping war.”
… being in a constant state of instability
Thanu Yakupitiyage, 31, of New York City said that the current climate for refugees is “extremely anxiety-producing.” Yakupitiyage, herself, is an immigrant who came to the US in 2003 from Sri Lanka on a full scholarship for college. Since then she has held multiple visas; first as a student followed by a work visa before becoming a legal permanent resident last year.
Because of her personal experience, she knows how hard it is to relocate here permanently, citing the “broken immigration” system. It’s why she has dedicated her life to supporting immigrants regardless of their status. For the last six years, she has worked at the New York Immigration Coalition, an immigrant rights organization.
“The US can be a really difficult place to navigate if you’re not from here.”
There’s a lot of anxiety and frustration coming from the immigrant communities she works with, especially as rumors of ICE raids spread, she told CNN. She has heard stories from coworkers of people not going to work anymore, afraid to leave their homes.
She adds: “That’s the thing that’s so scary about this anti-immigrant climate, is that it’s making it really hard for people to go about their daily lives.”
… feeling uncertain all the time
For some, the travel ban has led to a sense of urgency in their bids to become US citizens. Aaron Cotteral, 32, is a green card holder from the UK. Emigrating when he was 12, he has since built a life in the US working as a real estate agent in Atlanta, Georgia, and starting a family.
“I fear for my circumstances … when I go for my quest to became a citizen, the process could get harder.”
Cotteral’s concerns also extend to how his immigration status might impact his nine-year-old son.
“I want to know that when I am coming through with a US passport that they see me as no different,” he said, adding that he is refusing to travel abroad for the time being.
“I felt the need to just stay put for right now,” he said. “I don’t know what I could encounter coming back in.”
“You just feel a sense of insecurity. If it can happen to someone else, you can’t say it can’t happen to you,” he said of potentially not being allowed back into the country.
… fearing for future generations
Meanwhile for others, the temporary restrictions have left them wandering what the long-term effects might be.
Mother to three children born in the US, Janet Olawoye is an immigrant from Nigeria. She and her husband have both become US citizens.
Since Trump’s inauguration, she has grown increasingly concerned that the children of immigrants will be subjected to scrutiny at school over subjects like their traditional names.
Additionally, she said that one of her kids has already come home asking questions if they are returning to Africa after being asked the same question at school.
She added: “We’re the adults, we can handle ourselves, but it’s the kids, the next generation of immigrants, those are the people that I’m afraid for.”
By Darran Simon and Lauren Said-Moorhouse