Trump’s Immigration Policy Strikes CUNY

Gordon Barnes

Saira Rafiee’s 

Statement on Facebook: 

srafieeI, Saira Rafiee, Ph.D. student of political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, was among god knows how many citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen that have been denied entry to the US. I was on a vacation, going back to my country to see my loved ones, like many other students. I was about to check in at the airport, when Donald Trump signed the EO, banning people from the above-mentioned countries from entering the US. I got on the flight to Abu Dhabi, but there at the airport was told that I would not be able to enter the US. I had to stay there for nearly 18 hours, along with 11 other Iranians, before getting on the flight back to Tehran. I have no clue whether I would ever be able to go back to the school I like so much, or to see my dear friends there. But my story isn’t as painful and terrifying as many other stories I have heard these days. I know an Iranian student in the US, who was planning to go back to Iran to see her sister who has cancer probably for the last time, but had to cancel her trip because of this order. A dear friend of mine, a Columbia Ph.D. student, went to Canada on Friday to be with his fiancée for the weekend, and is not able to go back to his studies and work, back to his scholarly life. I know many students who are outside the US, doing fieldwork for their dissertation, and have no clue whether they can finish their studies after studying for many years. And these stories are not even close in painfulness and horror to those of the people who are fleeing war and disastrous situations in their home countries. 

The sufferings of all of us are just one side of this horrendous order. The other side is the struggle against racism and fascism, against assaults on freedom and human dignity, against all the values that even though are far from being realized, are the only things that would make life worth living. As a student of sociology and political science, I have devoted a major part of my scholarly life to the study of authoritarianism. The media has published enough statistics during the past few days to show how irrelevant this order is to the fight against terrorism. It is time to call things by their true names; this is Islamophobia, racism, fascism. We, the 99% of the world, need to stand united in resisting the authoritarian forces all over the world. 

I want to thank all my dear comrades, classmates and professors at the Graduate Center, who have been following my situation since yesterday and have spent a great deal of time to help me and many others in the same conditions. This is a fight for all of us, and I am sure the people, united, will never be defeated.



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.

trump-signThe 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, on Monday, January 30. 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.

1While 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.

2 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 their historic defeat 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.

3It 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 realize the power of the people.

Let Saira Rafiee Return!

No Ban, No Wall,

Citizenship Rights for All!

No Hate, No Fear,

Refugees are Welcome Here!


Note: Since the writing of this article, Saira Rafiee has been allowed entry into the US and has now resumed her academic engagements at the Graduate Center. The advocacy of the unions, including the PSC, and the mass mobilization of people against the immigration ban were instrumental in this victory. However, the dangers posed by Trump’s executive order to immigrants, refugees and the marginalized still persist, and there is a pressing need for a grassroots social movement to resist what promises to be only the first of many impending assaults on our civil liberties.

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