Jurisprudence

I Worked in a U.S. Embassy and Saw How the Travel Ban Set the Stage for Family Separation

I am terrified of what immigration policies Trump is planning next.

People protest the Muslim travel ban outside of the Supreme Court.
People protest the Muslim travel ban outside of the Supreme Court in Washington on June 26.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Like many people I know, I’ve spent a lot of time this year consuming news coverage trickling in from our southern border. I’ve listened to recordings of children crying after they were ripped from their parents and pored over photographs of asylum-seekers running to escape tear gas. Unlike most people, I am a former foreign service officer who resigned halfway through a consular assignment in western Europe the week the current iteration of the Muslim nation–targeted travel ban went into effect.

My experiences implementing this administration’s immigration policy have led me to believe that the travel ban paved the way for the separation of families and the current attempts to restrict individuals from exercising their legal right to claim asylum. Since day one of the Trump presidency, the administration’s individual immigration policies have been part of a well-thought-out, coordinated strategy of escalation, with the end goal of keeping black and brown immigrants out and keeping America white. These policies would not have been possible without the collective, gradual normalization of the Trump administration’s racist immigration agenda over nearly two years of it careening from one shocking policy to the next.

When the travel ban first went into effect, seven days after President Trump took office, journalists and activists spent days documenting the chaos at airports throughout the United States. The public was outraged as images went viral of families stranded at airports, unsure about the fate of loved ones stuck on the other side of arrivals. Immigration attorneys reported inconsistent and at times nonsensical application of the poorly written executive order. Crowds of activists rallied in arrival halls with banners proclaiming that America was better than this.

Of course, press was not allowed into consular sections in U.S. embassies throughout the world, but it was chaos there too. We faced the same unanswered questions the rest of our country was grappling with—could we interview dual nationals? Did immigrant visa applicants from impacted countries who had waited years for visa interviews lose their appointments? We strained under the emotional impact of frantic calls from applicants and their loved ones. Hundreds of officers, myself included, signed onto a dissent cable expressing our belief that the ban runs counter to core American values and our fear that the order would trigger anti-American sentiment abroad, harm our economy, and have immediate and devastating humanitarian impact.

During this time, pictures and videos of activists rallying at airports gave me hope: America would not stand for this.

Then, the courts stepped in and a modified version of the ban went into effect. Lawyers and policymakers in the Consular Affairs Bureau translated court rulings into a series of guidance cables adjudicating how officers around the world were to make decisions. If many of us did not agree with the underlying racist and Islamophobic intentions of the ban, we felt grateful that at least there were parameters to curb the order’s most harmful effects. And, by and large, we moved on. No more dissent cables.

Unlike officers in other consulates and embassies, I did not have to implement the ban on a daily basis. I was lucky to work in an embassy where I interviewed relatively few applicants from travel ban–affected countries. But let me tell you something: The first time I refused someone under the authorities of the ban’s executive order, I went to the bathroom and I cried. I did not sleep well that night. The second time, it was easier. My own ability to rationalize implementation of a policy that ran so starkly counter to my personal values was in and of itself alarming—and a factor that fueled my eventual resignation.

When I resigned my post and first returned to the United States, in October 2017, I found that the travel ban had largely slipped off the radar for most of the country, the media, and elected officials. It largely stopped being a public issue when the images stopped streaming in from the airports. In June of this year, the ban briefly reappeared in headlines when the Supreme Court voted to uphold its third iteration, and then it faded into the background again. The current version of the ban is sanitized under so many layers of bureaucracy, domesticated by countless court opinions. It is not shocking. It is forms and waivers and confusing legalese. It plays out quietly, in petitions and paperwork, in a fraudulent waiver process, its human impact largely borne by vulnerable populations thousands of miles away.

Our experience with the president’s first major immigration-policy action—when bureaucracy and the next news cycle subsumed initial shock and outrage—has repeated several times over the past year. In June, news crews flooded to the border to document the hastily implemented policy of family separation. Then, weeks later, a federal judge ruled that this practice was unconstitutional and that families must be reunited, and the bureaucracy turned to making sense of what this would mean in terms of family-detention facilities. Then the migrant caravan and militarization of the border dominated the headlines for weeks in October. In November, the president announced severe restrictions on individual rights to claim asylum outside of official ports of entry. A federal judge quickly struck down this order, and a conservative appellate judge hammered it further, triggering what looks likely to be another high court legal battle regarding the limits of executive power. The latest outrage came on Wednesday, when it was reported that Trump was seeking to remove protections from deportation for Vietnam War refugees.

Significantly less coverage has been given to the evolution of these policies months after their initial implementation, including reports that the practice of family separation is quietly resuming and migrant parents are seeing legal challenges to their right to custody of their children.

At the end of this year, I am worried for what comes next: What comes after tear-gassing children in diapers? As we move into 2019 and prepare for the swearing in of a new Congress, we need to take stock of the lessons we have learned. We must not allow cosmetic changes to racist policies to distract us from their underlying animus or their continued harm to vulnerable populations. We must view the treatment of migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers attempting to enter the United States as the human rights issue that it is. Critically, we must hold our elected officials accountable for their action—or inaction—on challenging the Trump administration’s racist, xenophobic zero tolerance agenda. Immigration is this administration’s chosen vehicle to advance white supremacy, and we must respond to it as such.