Trump’s Immigration Policy Strikes CUNY

Gordon Barnes

Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigrants and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Lybia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – has affected one of CUNY’s own. Saira Rafiee, a doctoral student in the Political Science Program at The Graduate Center, CUNY, was visiting family on holiday in Iran when the ban came into effect. After boarding a plane bound for New York in Dubai, Rafiee was removed from the flight, held for eighteen hours, and then ferried back to Tehran.


It is unclear at this point if Saira or the innumerable other people caught in travel limbo will be allowed back into the United States. If there was any doubt about who is targeted by Trump’s executive order, Rafiee’s case should make it clear. She already went through the onerous vetting process demanded by the US government. But she, like other visa and green card holders who were abroad at the time the immigration ban came into effect, was prevented from traveling back to the US.

The Muslim ban has nothing to do with security and terrorism. It has everything to do with a racist and xenophobic move by the White House to control immigration. The specter of terrorism is used solely to convince Americans that the ban benefits them. Thankfully, it seems the vast majority have utterly rejected such repugnant rhetoric and have seen the new immigration policy for what it is, an acute manifestation of racism and islamophobia veiled as some nebulous concern about American “freedom” and safety.

Coming off the tailwinds of massive and spontaneous demonstrations at JFK international airport  – as well as many other airports nationwide – and Battery Park over the weekend, a small but vocal rally was held outside of United States District Court Eastern District of New York, Monday, 30 January. Vociferous in their support for refugees and other immigrants barred from entering the United States, Rafiee was the focus of this demonstration-cum-press conference.

Speakers from the Professional Staff Congress, Rafiee’s union at CUNY, SUNY Dreamers, the CUNY University Student Senate, amongst others, expressed solidarity with Rafiee and the whole host of people adversely affected by this draconian legislation. The PSC, CUNY Contingents Unite, and a wide range of university affiliated groups attended. They expressed solidarity with Rafiee and decried this new pivot by Trump’s administration, one which harkens back to nineteenth and twentieth-century immigration bans targeting specific ethnic groups.

What Can the CUNY Community Do?

CUNY specifically, and New York more generally, must mobilize to defend the rights of Rafiee and all immigrants. This is particularly imperative given the scope of the ongoing migrant crisis, stemming from imperialist war in the Middle East and economic dislocation in Africa. Rafiee is also just one of many who continue to suffer from Trump’s xenophobic and anti-Muslim politics.

While the current ban is slated for ninety days, it is ninety days too long. And the indefinite prohibition of Syrians entering the US is even more disturbing. This is the first foray, alongside the proposed expansion and consolidation of the US-Mexican border wall, led by the elite in this country to not only curb immigrant rights, but to spurn “non-Americans” and prevent them from engaging with the body-politic. We must not only denounce such a process as the one which is underway, but we must combat it and defeat it.

As it relates to Rafiee specifically, we should demand that she is immediately allowed to return to the United States. Considering that the federal government will not acquiesce to such demands and the local Democratic government will only offer paltry gestures towards achieving this goal, we must agitate for a more direct approach. This means we must call on the PSC to mobilize the labor power of CUNY to bring Rafiee back.

This would include a physical take-over of not only the Graduate Center, but all CUNY campuses and facilities by students, faculty, and staff. That is to say, we must call for a sit-down strike in concurrence with student sit-ins across the twenty-four CUNY campuses. We must also liaise with other labor and activist networks in New York in order to bring labor’s pressure to bear on the entirety of the recent implementation of the executive order.

In the spirit of not only expressing solidarity with Rafiee – whose scholarly pursuits revolve around the study of authoritarianism – but with all migrants and refugees, we must move beyond just advocating for her (and them) in the halls of CUNY. We must mobilize the labor power of New York City, and indeed the entire country to push back against the white-supremacist and misogynistic capitalist state, now helmed by one of the obscene members of the ruling class in Donald Trump, to smash the power of the elite and to lay the foundation of a social system under which oppressed groups are not roundly ostracized on the one hand, or held up as tokens on the other.

The strike by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance in response to the Muslim Ban is an excellent example, but it is not enough. We must call on all laborers, particularly those who are socially close enough to the ongoing issue and wielding sufficient power to influence its material application. To this end then, we must call on airport workers, pilots, baggage handlers, and air traffic controllers – the latter of whom no longer have a union due to the historic defeat of their strike in 1981 – to strike. They wield the requisite social power necessary to directly confront the tyrannical legislation and politics now being brought to the fore in earnest, without its usual window dressings.

It is not enough to convey solidarity in word. Action is needed. We must wholly obliterate the Muslim ban, prevent the proposed expansion of the border wall, and indeed tear down what already exists. We must proclaim that we are for full citizenship rights for all immigrants and refugees. These battles, in conjunction with other ongoing social struggles, serve as the basis for the foundation of political and social movements, which have the power to break the mass of people in the United States away from the disastrous politics of both the Republicans and the Democrats and the political blind alley of bourgeois electoralism.

While Saira Rafiee’s struggle is not our only cause, we must champion it in order to enact changes on behalf of the vast majority. It is through struggling on her behalf and fighting for those in similar positions that we will challenge the new status quo under Trump. Finally, and again, we must not only proclaim the following slogans, but also act on them. By advancing these slogans, rhetorically as well as via political praxis, and by mobilizing labor power to combat oppressive legislations and practices, we can shatter the dominance of the elite echelons in society and replace it with our own.

Let Saira Rafiee Return!

No Ban, No Wall,

Citizenship Rights for All!

No Hate, No Fear,

Refugees are Welcome Here!


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