Families separated, students stranded: The impact of Trump's immigration ban

U.S. President Donald Trump's temporary ban on refugees and immigrants from certain countries has led to families being separated and students being stranded overseas. It has also turned some airport terminals into temporary legal clinics.

Designed to keep terrorists out of the U.S., Trump's order is disrupting travel and causing chaos on campuses

One of the dining areas in Terminal 4 of New York's JFK airport has become a temporary legal clinic, where volunteer immigration lawyers handle the cases of those impacted by Donald Trump's executive order on immigrants and refugees. (Steven D'Souza/CBC News)

As an American-born citizen, Horan Zokari never expected to get caught up in Donald Trump's executive order on immigration. But now his two-year journey to bring his wife to the U.S. has been put on hold.

Zokari was born in New York, but his parents are from Yemen, one of the seven countries listed in Friday's executive order. It's also where he met and married his wife four years ago. Soon after, Zokari began the process that would bring her and his 13-month-old daughter to the U.S.

But when the travel ban went into effect, everything was put on hold. 
Horan Zokari's wife and 13-month-old daughter are stuck in Yemen, unable to complete the two-year immigration process that would bring them to the U.S., all because of the executive order temporarily banning anyone from one of seven Muslim-majority countries. (Steven D'Souza/CBC News)

"It's just a mixed bag of emotions, I wouldn't want anyone to be in my shoes," Zokari said, speaking from his family's convenience store in New York's Lower East Side.

"I'm 100 per cent with preventing terrorists," he said, referring to Trump's justification for the executive order. "But I don't think it's fair to ban an entire nation because of a small group. I don't think it's fair to rip families apart."

Border swiftly shut down

With the stroke of a pen, Trump's executive order immediately put a 120-day halt on all refugee resettlement to the U.S. (indefinitely for Syrian refugees), and a 90-day ban on anyone trying to enter the country from one of seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

It effectively shut the border to students with valid visas attending school in the U.S. but who were overseas in the affected countries when the ban went into effect.

This week, in the shadow of the Brooklyn courthouse, where a judge ordered a temporary stay on the presidential order, students and faculty rallied in support of Saira Rafiee, a graduate student at the City University of New York, who was visiting family in Iran when the ban came into effect. 
Students and faculty rallied in Brooklyn over the weekend in support of CUNY student Saira Rafiee, who was stuck in Iran and prevented from travelling back to the U.S. after implementation of the executive order. The graduate student studies in New York but was visiting family when the order went into effect. (Steven D'Souza/CBC News)

Rafiee's cousin was at that rally but was afraid to speak publicly for fear of becoming a target. She, too, is an Iranian citizen in the U.S on a student visa and now unable to travel.

"It's very frustrating because we all came here thinking it would be a free country and you can have a voice as an immigrant," she said.

Rafiee's cousin says their situation, however, is not as dire as those refugees who've been turned back at the border. Friday's executive order was issued swiftly and without advanced warning, effectively stranding several people already approved to come to the U.S. but who hadn't yet arrived.

"Those refugees, they cannot go back," she said, fighting back tears. "We are the lucky ones — at least we are here. Those refugees have no other options."   

Lawyers step up

Those caught up in the ban have found help on the front lines, at airports like New York's JFK International, where immigration lawyers have turned one of the cafés in Terminal 4 into a makeshift legal clinic.

Working as volunteers, the lawyers take shifts to help those affected by the ban who continue to arrive. The number of detainees has dwindled after clarification from the White House about how the ban should be applied. But lawyers like Maryann Tharappel, of Catholic Charities, are still chasing hourly reports of visitors being held by customs. 
Immigration lawyer Maryann Tharappel is one of dozens of lawyers volunteering their time at JFK Airport to help those affected by the order. (Steven D'Souza/CBC News)

"There's a … lack of information going on out there, so one of the things we're really focusing on is educating immigrant families and communities so they can advise and better educate their family members before entry," she said.

Since the travel restrictions on visitors from the seven countries are set to expire after 90 days, Horan Zokari hopes that once that window passes, he can get back to working on reuniting with his wife.

"No person — no matter their religion, background, race, colour, creed, sexual orientation — deserves to have the door shut in their face," he said, noting that he hopes that time will give people a chance to reflect, as well as allow Trump to rethink the executive order and the effect it has had.


Steven D'Souza

Senior Reporter

Steven D'Souza is a Senior Reporter based in Toronto. Previously he was CBC's correspondent in New York covering two U.S. Presidential campaigns and travelling around the U.S. covering everything from protests to natural disasters to mass shootings. He won a Canadian Screen Award for coverage of the protests around the death of George Floyd. He's reported internationally from Rome, Israel and Brazil.