Donald Trump became president on a platform charged with Islamophobia, demonization of immigrants, and white supremacy.
Now, President Joe Biden has begun to undo that. On his first day in office, Biden repealed the discriminatory Muslim ban, which has caused immense harm to Muslim communities in the U.S. and abroad.
Though its repeal is a step in the right direction, it is not nearly enough. We must acknowledge these harms and demand accountability for them. One powerful framework for demanding such accountability is people’s tribunals, which have proved effective in exposing human rights violations and pressuring state actors to take responsibility.
In December 2015, the Trump campaign first disseminated a press release “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” On Jan. 27, 2017, during the first week of his presidency, Trump issued an executive order prohibiting travel into the U.S. for 90 days from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen and indefinitely suspending travel into the U.S. from Syria. The order also blocked refugee travel into the country for 120 days.
But Trump alone could not have accomplished this ban. He was aided by dozens of government workers, private lobbyists, and attorneys who implemented the ban and revised it so it would pass court muster.
Once the order was signed, the Department of Homeland Security jumped into action. Within days, it denied entry to hundreds of Muslims from the banned countries who found themselves stranded in U.S. airports or turned away before even boarding their flights.
Over the course of the next year, the Trump administration engaged in a legal battle as various human rights organizations challenged the constitutionality of the ban. Despite Trump’s subsequent revisions of the ban, federal judges in Washington, Hawaii, and Maryland issued rulings against its implementation, and in several instances, appellate courts affirmed those rulings. However, in December 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that a narrower version of the ban could take full effect, even while federal courts heard continued challenges. On June 26, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Trump and the government, holding that the ban was constitutional and that presidential powers gave Trump the authority to put into place such a restriction. The Muslim-majority countries affected by the version of the ban that ultimately went into effect were Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.
People’s tribunals can be critical in cases like this one, where domestic courts have effectively sanctioned an act even though its enforcement has implicated the U.S. government in a number of human rights violations. People’s tribunals are forums for justice initiated by grassroots organizations, social justice movements, organizers, lawyers, and academics. These forums provide space to adjudicate charges against the state outside of the formal judicial system. Unlike proceedings that involve state bodies, such as congressional investigations or litigation, people’s tribunals are not beholden to government bureaucracy in their truth finding and exposing missions.
The format of these tribunals mirrors that of a trial—lawyers take up the roles of prosecutors and defense attorneys; community members, legal scholars, and judges act as jurors; individuals directly affected by the legislation or issue at hand come forward to provide testimony describing their experiences.
Though these tribunals do not hold legal authority themselves, they do help gather evidence that can later be used by judicial forums such as the International Criminal Court. The ICC has the authority to take on cases or launch investigations based on information that is brought to light through a tribunal. Alternatively, people’s tribunals can help develop stronger foundations to launch more effective, subsequent domestic federal investigations.
So, while people’s tribunals may not be the sole accountability mechanism appropriate to address the harms of the Muslim ban, they can play an important role in exposing human rights violations committed by Trump and those who aided him.
Further, these tribunals serve important accountability goals by “directing international attention to grave abuses of human rights in various countries” and by forcing governing bodies and the public to reckon with national histories. For example, in 2016, the International Tribunal for Democracy in Brazil “[called] attention to a situation quickly spiraling into fascism” when then-President Dilma Rousseff was unjustly impeached and former Vice President Michel Temer took over without holding elections.
The U.S.’s long history of white supremacy—and legislation, like the Muslim ban, that is built on this history—can be addressed in present day through tribunals, where witnesses can also make the case for remedy in the form of reparations.
Finally, people’s tribunals differ from formal judicial proceedings in that one of the tribunals’ primary purposes is to prioritize the narratives of those directly affected. These narratives are often in danger of getting buried when they are up against the voices of state officials in lengthy and complex judicial and legislative processes.
And there are countless people who still need to tell their stories and get closure. The State Department reports that the Muslim ban is the sole reason that more than 1,500 children have been kept from their American parents and more than 3,000 parents have been kept from their American children. In other words, absent the Muslim ban, these thousands of individuals would have received visas to live with their families. Nearly 4,000 people have been separated from their partners for the same reason.
The stories are endless. Ismail Alghazali, a Yemeni American, has been kept apart from his wife and two young children, who were unable to obtain U.S. visas because of the ban. Alghazali has never even met his daughter. Shaghyegh Ansari’s family in Iran missed her wedding, and Ansari was also unable to be with her father in his last months before he died of brain cancer, shortly after his diagnosis.
Married couples like Masoud Abdi and Shima Montakhabi are also struggling to maintain hope and keep their families intact. Abdi, a permanent resident of the U.S., is afraid that if he leaves, he will not be permitted reentry. Montakhabi is stuck in Iran pending her visa. The couple is now in their 40s, and their hopes of having children are dwindling, while their depression intensifies daily.
The Muslim ban has also exacted a toll on students at U.S. higher education institutions. In 2017, approximately 17,000 international students in the U.S. came from one of the banned countries.
Like Abdi, many international students and faculty members at U.S. schools have been worried they would not be able to return if they leave to visit family. These fears are not unfounded—countless individuals with green cards, visas, and even U.S. passports have been detained, handcuffed, and interrogated when returning to the U.S. These circumstances are immeasurably stressful for individuals from banned countries, and on campuses, this stress has obstructed students’ academic progress.
The fears and anxieties caused by the ban have also resulted in medical crises for Muslim immigrants. A Columbia University study found women from banned countries living in the U.S. “experienced a nearly 7 percent increase in the odds of delivering a preterm infant between September 2017 and August 2018.” Native-born white women experienced no change in preterm birth trends during the same period. Preterm births are associated with increased infant health complications and higher infant death rates. Similarly, studies also indicate that stress surrounding immigration status is directly linked to decreased or delayed prenatal visits, avoidance of critical government health and housing benefits, and increased risk of obesity and high blood pressure.
These stories deserve to be told in forums that center and honor the individuals who lived through them. Only once those stories are heard and the harm addressed can directly-impacted communities find a measure of peace.