Sunday, more than ten thousand people squeezed into Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan, to protest their government’s ban on allowing almost all travellers and immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries to enter the U.S. The bright, saturated signs transformed the bleak cityscape into a giddy fairground, with messages such as “Detain Trump,” “Deport Fascists,” and “SHAME” scrawled in marker and paint. Many of the protesters were related to refugees and immigrants, or were refugees and immigrants themselves. Most seemed to be in shock. Racism and Islamophobia are nothing new in America, but outbreaks can usually be traced to specific incidents and individuals. There is something distinctly worse when they come your own government. Many immigrants at the march told me that the Trump Presidency has been the first time since they made the United States their home that they have begun to feel unwelcome.
Trump has now dialled back his immigration order, saying that green-card holders will be permitted to return once they have been screened. But reports have filtered out of airports where travellers are still being turned away, denied access to lawyers, and enduring invasive questioning that asks, among other things, their opinion of Trump. At the protest, a group of young students at Fordham University was chanting, “Estamos juntos en la lucha” (We are in the fight together). One of them, a girl named Soukaina, who was tall and fair-skinned with long, dark curls, told me that what was happening didn’t make sense to her. “I’m Moroccan and Muslim, I’m on a student visa, and I came here because this was the ‘Land of the Free,’ “ she said, using air quotes around the last phrase. “And now it seems like it’s all lies. I love being here. I love the people. I don’t why I’m being targeted for my personal beliefs.”
Through the thicket of shouting, laughing people, the babies hoisted on shoulders, and the puppies wearing signs, a sense of a fellowship, if not love, radiated. Pairs of older immigrant women held hands as they walked through the park. One such pair was protesting with their Yemeni-American family, a group in which all the women wore brilliantly colored headscarves. “I never thought of myself as anything but American, until now,” Sana, a social worker, told me. “People come to America because they believe in what it is.” Now two of her relatives, who held green cards, were stuck outside of the country. A cousin had travelled to get his wife and kids and bring them to the United States; they were stuck in Djibouti, where thousands of Yemeni refugees have fled amid the ongoing war between rebels and the government in their country. Sana’s uncle was marooned in Egypt with his family. Circumstances were beginning to feel dire. “We don’t know how long this is going to go on, and they need to work,” she said. She shook her head. “You just want to be home.”
The Administration’s focus on relatively recent refugees and immigrants has stirred a historical grief, and, in some instances, trauma, in people who have been here longer, and who remember how badly things could have gone had they, or their relatives, not been given safe passage. I trailed a man in an olive-green jacket who was proudly holding up a giant sign that said, “My father didn’t survive this”–the poster showed a swastika–“for this!” His name was Howard, he told me, as he kept sight of his wife and child walking ahead of him. “My father is a Holocaust survivor, and I just can’t stay silent,” he said. “I never thought I’d see this in my own country.” The fact that Trump has his own familial ties with immigrants—his mother, two of his wives, his paternal grandparents—gives more weight to the theory that he is not targeting all refugees and immigrants but a certain kind: Muslim and, often, non-white. The joy of the march was that New Yorkers across races and religions, some with connections to refugee and immigrant experiences, others with none, were expressing solidarity with the most vulnerable and least powerful. If you come for one of us, the protesters said with their presence, you come for us all.
People across the nation were saying the same. At airports in several big cities (and smaller ones, too, including Birmingham, Alabama; Columbus, Ohio; and Bloomington, Indiana), Americans gathered to protest. They had made a discrete impact—the stay of the order in a Manhattan court came directly after a thousands-strong demonstration at John F. Kennedy Airport—but it’s unclear how much of the tide of xenophobia can be stemmed, at least without congressional support. “It certainly makes protesters feel better,” an eighty-six-year-old woman named Miriam, in sunglasses and leaning on a cane as the march began, told me. She was a veteran of protests such as Women Strike for Peace, where tens of thousands of women marched against nuclear weapons during the Cold War, and Grandmothers Against the War, which demanded a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. There was something to be said, she went on, for showing your displeasure with the government for all to see. “We’re better than this,” she said. “How could we not?”
The fates of the people affected by Trump’s ban are in limbo. The tone in the immigration zones at American airports, long suspicious of travellers unlucky enough to have the wrong passport or ethnicity, has turned openly hostile, scaring even those of us who have never known, or who no longer know, anywhere else as home. After 9/11, several of my relatives and friends, sensing a shift in the way their neighbors viewed foreigners, began applications for American citizenship. It had been decades since my parents, aunts, and uncles had emigrated from Nigeria, and they didn’t see that country as where there lives were anymore. The United States was where they had finished their degrees, found jobs, and had their children, but it didn’t occur to them until then that it could all be taken away in an instant. They are now, happily and gratefully, citizens, and would seem immune from Trump’s slashing executive orders. But in times of radical, exclusionary nationalism, the ring encircling the unwanted other is always expanding, often when you least expect it.
“I just hope the rest of the country sees this,” a man in glasses grumbled on a subway platform after the rally in Battery Park. “In Kentucky, in Illinois.” Signs wilted as cold, tired protesters sank onto the wooden benches to wait for their trains. They were still talking excitedly, though, about their plans for the week. More marches had already been organized.