In a parallel universe, the scene could have flooded newspaper front pages and cable news networks for days. But in the whirlwind of the Trump presidency, it’ll end up just another footnote in a forgotten chapter of White House absurdity.
Last week, President Donald Trump hosted a delegation of some two dozen victims of religious persecution from around the world. The diverse group, which included a Jewish Holocaust survivor, a Tibetan who fled China and a Rohingya Muslim chased out of Myanmar by a government-backed campaign of ethnic cleansing, huddled around the president’s desk at the Oval Office. They took turns explaining their plight to Trump and what drove them to escape their homelands for safe haven elsewhere.
It was already an awkward set piece, but it turned all the more cringeworthy with Trump’s comments. One exchange in particular – between the president and Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman from Iraq who was raped and tortured and whose family members were murdered by the Islamic State – stood out. The president was not particularly attentive, only perking up when questioning Murad on how she could have won the Nobel Peace Prize.
“They gave it to you for what reason?” he asked, with seeming incredulity.
“For what reason?” responded Murad, one of the first women to speak publicly about what she and her community endured. “For, after all this happened to me, I didn’t give up. I made it clear to everyone that ISIS raped thousands of Yazidi women.”
Trump nodded and moved on. In another sequence, he seemed perplexed to hear about the existence of the Rohingya, hundreds of thousands of whom now languish in dire conditions in the world’s largest refugee camp, along Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar.
We mention this callous display because of the broader context in which it occurred. Just hours after his exchange with Murad, who begged Trump to help her vulnerable sect, the president stood at a now-infamous rally in North Carolina where supporters gleefully chanted for the deportation of perhaps the United States’ most-discussed refugee, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. In the same week, it emerged that the Trump administration planned to end asylum protections for many migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. A day after Trump expressed befuddlement over Rohingya refugees, a report in Politico found that the administration was “considering a virtual shutdown of refugee admissions next year.”
Whatever the White House’s posturing over religious persecution elsewhere in the world, it’s in the grips of a different agenda at home.
Ever since coming to power, Trump and an inner circle of hard-line ideologues have sought to radically refashion the country’s approach to immigration: They want to deport en masse undocumented migrants living in the United States and block future arrivals of asylum seekers. They want to end America’s traditional role as a beacon for refugees from war-torn countries. They want to dent the political power of cities and regions where many immigrants and minorities live. And they want to even curb legal migration to the United States as part of what critics say is a broader white-nationalist project.
All the while, Trump and his allies in Congress and conservative media stoke a polarized climate in which many immigrants and minorities feel targeted and unfairly vilified. “President Trump’s special animus toward immigrants – and the policies concocted by the hard-liners surrounding him – has pushed enforcement over the line separating reasonable actions from immoral ones, especially in a nation whose very birth was predicated upon immigration,” noted an editorial in the Los Angeles Times.
The fears of hundreds of thousands living in the United States with temporary protected status, or TPS, provide an urgent case in point. Since 1990, the U.S. government has afforded this status to close to half a million people in the United States who are citizens of countries hit by war, natural disasters or other extreme conditions. The status relieves its holder of the threat of deportation and enables them to work, but does not offer a pathway to legal permanent status.
Since coming to power, the Trump administration broke tradition and decided to terminate the TPS designation for a whole slate of countries, including Nepal, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan. Legal challenges have so far stymied the administration’s decision to end the designations, which usually get renewed every 18 months. But those who have TPS now live in constant uncertainty about their future.
Trump’s distaste for the program seems to extend to new communities in need. Earlier this month, Ken Cuccinelli, a hard-line anti-immigration advocate whom Trump tapped as acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director, issued a letter indicating that the Trump administration was not yet willing to consider a TPS designation for tens of thousands of Venezuelans already in the United States. Though the White House has pursued an activist foreign policy against the regime of Venezuelan autocrat Nicolás Maduro – and grandstanded over the miserable humanitarian and security conditions within the country – it shows little inclination to offer sanctuary to Venezuelans fleeing what Maduro has wrought.
On Thursday, the House took the unusual step of passing a bill that granted TPS to Venezuelans, a measure that will still have to pass the Senate and then get approved by Trump. “If there is any population that meets the absolute statutory definition of being granted TPS, it is the Venezuelan people who have fled a dictator who is starving his own people,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said to reporters.
Venezuelans are hardly the only ones in the lurch. Some 7,000 Syrians in the United States also have TPS, but their designation is now up for renewal next week. There’s speculation in Washington that, under Cuccinelli’s watch, the administration may choose to terminate the Syrian designation as well – a particularly harsh move given the country’s ongoing civil war and the real dangers facing myriad refugees when they return.
Monzer Shakally is a 23-year-old Syrian dental student at the University of Iowa who came to the United States as a teenager, leaving his parents behind in Damascus. He and other Syrians in the United States dependent on their TPS designation are anxious about what may befall them.
“I have met some people, who say, ‘If I go back to Syria, I’ll be tortured to death. I’d rather shoot himself,’ ” Shakally told this column.
Because of Trump’s travel ban on Syrians, Shakally’s parents have been unable to apply for a visa to visit the United States. He has not seen them in six years, nor has he seen other members of his family scattered around the world by the war in Syria.
A letter signed by 200 faith-based organizations in the United States urged the Trump administration to extend TPS for Syrians. “A failure to provide the maximum protection for Syrians in the United States now would go against the cherished principles that define our country,” the letter warned.
“The U.S. is suffering when they deny people who want to come here and contribute,” Shakally said. He says both the United States and Europe have now “simply shut the door and closed their eyes” to the ongoing plight of Syrians.
Shakally taught himself English by watching episodes of “The Simpsons” and speaks vividly of his childhood dreams to come to America. “I love this country,” he said. “I don’t want to see it going down the wrong path.”