I am a Somali-born Briton. If I leave New York to see my family in the UK, will I definitely be able to return?by Ismail Einashe / February 1, 2017 / Leave a comment
Read more: In April, Einashe wrote: “Theresa May’s plans will make millions of Britons second-class citizens”
As I write this, I’m stuck in limbo in New York City, afraid to travel to the UK for fear of not being able to return to the United States. I’m on a fellowship at Columbia University and have a multiple entry 10-year visa on my UK passport. But there is chaos following President Donald Trump’s executive order banning entry to the US from seven mainly Muslim countries. One of them is Somalia, where I was born.
I have never been issued with a Somali passport. I was forced to flee that war-torn country when I was nine years old. I spent time as a refugee in Ethiopia before finally arriving in Britain. I am now a naturalised UK citizen working as a journalist. I had thought that my years of worrying at airports about my immigration status were over. But along with many others—including Somali-born, British Olympic gold medal winner Mo Farah, and Iraqi-born Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi—the Trump order abruptly cast my status into doubt.
Confusion has reigned since the beginning. A couple of days after the order was issued, the UK government breezily told us not to worry: as long as we are travelling from Britain, and not Somalia, there shouldn’t be an issue. But a day or two later, the US Embassy in London contradicted this advice on its website. Following pressure from the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, the embassy refined its advice. In the days since, an American court in Seattle suspended the order, and the president took to Twitter to rage at the “so-called judge,” before appealing and losing again.
The latest court ruling sounds reassuring, but there is no way to be sure about the next appeal. Likewise, Johnson can charm the US embassy into cooling things down, but that provides no guarantees. How can I be sure if I return to London to see my family that I will then get back in to the US? Thickening the haze was the inconsistent way in which the ban was being implemented before it was suspended by a federal judge. Where you happened to land could be all-important—as could which border official you happened to meet.
These officials are hardly a bleeding-heart species at the best of times, and now they have effectively been encouraged by Trump to take the law into their own hands. At one point at Dulles Airport, Virginia, four Democratic congressmen insisted that border officials implement a Virginia court order halting the deportation of individuals with valid visas, but they refused. If I’m in an interview room with a US border guard and I show him Johnson’s statement, is he just going to say, “Oh, if the UK government says so, then you’re good to go”?
Bans on refugees are always cruel, but the US has seen them before. The Trumpian twist is in stopping people entering who have legitimate visas, like me, or green cards, which allow them to work. This is the beginning of de-facto repatriation, which threatens up to half a million people living in the US. This may not, technically, be the Muslim ban promised during Trump’s campaign. But his ghoulish advisor, Rudy Giuliani, let slip on Fox News that Trump had responded to the obvious legal objections by asking him to “show me the right way to do it legally.” And the anti-Muslim agenda remained undisguised when the ban was announced: Israel was assured that Iraqi-born Jews weren’t affected; non-Muslim minorities in Muslim countries will be given priority when—and if—refugee programmes restart.
None of this happened in a vacuum. Under Barack Obama, I lost my right to travel to the US under the standard UK visa-waiver programme. At home in the UK, citizenship has increasingly become a weapon of counter-terrorism—as Home Secretary, Theresa May stripped 33 people of British citizenship on security grounds. But there is no rational basis for the Trump ban, which does nothing to protect against home-grown jihadis or those, like the 9/11 hijackers, who hail from US allies in the Gulf. And yet a swirl of stories show its consequences: the elderly Iraqi woman who suffered after being stopped from travelling for medical treatment; the Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi nominated for an Oscar but who will not attend the ceremony; the Syrian Christian family who had spent their life savings on travelling, only to have their visas scored out and written over with “Cancelled by Presidential Executive Order 13769.”
The government seems intent on offering Trump a state visit—more interested in buttering him up for a trade deal than defending its own citizens. On her trip to Washington, the prime minister learned something about the Muslim ban before it was made public, but kept her counsel. For me there is no hiding from the anxiety: it has been a horrendous few days. I walk in the crisp sunlit air of the Upper West Side of Manhattan and all seems normal; yet somehow the fear always returns.