New Yorkers, including Indian-Americans, gathered in strength at JFK International Airport Jan. 28 in opposition to President Trump’s executive order effectively banning Muslims from seven countries from entering the United States for 90 days.
The assembly began with a handful of people around noon when some rights activists got wind that through news channels that two Iraqis were being held in detention. Within a few hours a few hundreds have descended after the news spread.
“I reached there around noon, along with a few friends like Hemma and Anita Kilwan from Sadhana, a group calling itself a coalition of progressive Hindus, to show support for the people in distress and to protest the government action,” said Sunita Viswanathan, a Brooklyn-based women’s rights activist and mother of three, who braved the cold weather to reach the airport.
Initially, she said, the parking lot outside terminal where they gathered was almost empty with only about 20/25 people who were chanting and holding cardboard signs, but after a while the crowd swelled to some 500 people or so, including many young women and some elderly people. There was a man from the immigration Coalition who was going inside terminal to be in touch with lawyers who were trying to help people. He would periodically come outside and give updates to the assembled men and women and tell them to pick up their phones to let others know about the goings – on at the airport so more people would come to the airport and pressure inside could mount so hopefully some of the people could be released.
Viswanathan estimated that by around evening, there were some 2,000 people, including at least 50 plus Indian-Americans along with other South Asians and other Americans, and activists from various community advocacy organizations, including Desis Rising Up and Moving.
Throughout the period, officials from Mayor Bill de Blasio”s office, including Nisha Agarwal, commissioner in the Mayor Office for Immigration Affairs, and lawyers sat on the floor, trying to get updates on the evolving situation.
In a press statement later in the evening, Agarwal said that she and the mayor’s office are “deeply disappointed” by the executive order. “We will work very closely with all the lawyers and activist groups who are here today because this has to be all hands on deck. It’s really just a mess, and the impact on human lives is devastating,” she said.
To a question, she said that under the current circumstances, anybody who is an immigrant, and could be confused for a Muslim for his or her color of skin, could be targets of these kinds of incidents.
“They might target us because we are Indians and because we look like we might be Muslims,” she said. “There is no difference between us who have arrived in this country long ago, and those who are travelling here now. If we could see that they could be us and that could make us stand against what is happening right now,” Viswanathan said.
But not all agreed with her.
Some Republicans, like New York-based attorney Anand Ahuja, dismissed apprehensions that Indian-Americans might be adversely affected because of the executive order of Trump and the fear-mongering by the “liberal media” which he claimed only wants to publish sensational news to increase circulation and revenue.
“On the contrary, I don’t think there is going to be any adverse effect on the Indian-American community because we have created a very positive image about the community to the government,” Ahuja, who is a big supporter of Trump, said. But he admitted that there may be stray incidents of hate crimes against Indian-Americans because they might be mistaken for a Muslim coming from Yemen or some other Muslim country. “But generally Trump’s presidency will help Indian-Americans.”
Ahuja pointed out that while the “liberal media” is claiming that Trump has imposed an effective ban on Muslims, such assertions are unsubstantiated. He pointed out that there are 46 Muslim countries which have not been blacklisted. “The fact that the ban has been against only 7 countries, proves that it is not a ban against all Muslims, but a ban on people from those countries that are said to be harboring terrorists who could harm the U.S.,” Ahuja said.
He claimed that by passing the executive order on this issue Trump only followed what former president Barack Obama did. “These 7 countries were picked up by Barack Obama when he was President and (the list) was approved by the Congress that said that these 7 countries are harboring terrorists or giving training to terrorists. Probably, Trump would have added countries like Pakistan to the list, but more countries might be picked up him later on,” Ahuja said.