Utah refugee advocates troubled by Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Trump’s travel ban

(Courtesy of Moudi Sbeity) Thikra Thanon, a refugee from Iraq and cook at Laziz Kitchen, takes a break from baking bread. Thanon is critical of the Tuesday, June 28, 2018, Supreme Court decision upholding President Donald Trump's travel ban.

Thikra Thanon talks to her sisters by phone most days. Sometimes they tell her the water has been cut off. Other times there’s been a bombing. That’s life for many in Iraq, from which Thanon and her family fled about three years ago to become refugees in the United States.

Since coming to Utah, Thanon’s children are in school. She and her husband have jobs. They own a home. Her family isn’t afraid, she told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday through a translator.

Yet, Thanon worries her new reality may not be offered to many seeking refuge under similar circumstances in other Muslim-majority countries.

That’s because, on Tuesday, the Supreme Court upheld President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which bars certain individuals from five Muslim-majority countries (and North Korea and Venezuela) from coming to the U.S. While Iraq was once among the banned Muslim countries, the list now only includes Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

The court’s 5-4 decision upheld the president’s authority to ban travelers if he believes they constitute a threat to the country. The conservative justices voted in the majority.

Afterward, the White House issued a response aimed at those who have fought his plan. It called the ruling “a vindication following months of hysterical commentary from the media and Democratic politicians who refuse to do what it takes to secure our border and our country.”

The decision, on Trump’s third iteration of the ban, doesn’t necessarily change current practice, as the court had allowed the policy to move forward while it considered the case.

But the ruling did restart debates that began during the 2016 presidential election. While Trump and conservatives in Congress declared it a victory for national security, immigrant and refugee advocates worried the ruling would legitimize what they call a discriminatory policy.

While Utah doesn’t receive many refugees from Iran, Libya or Yemen, the state has helped resettle families from Somalia and, to a lesser extent, Syria.

“I think this is a life saving program, and we need to continue to save lives, and if we close our doors, many other countries will follow suit,” said Aden Batar, director of Immigration and Refugee Resettlement at Catholic Community Services in Salt Lake City .

As far as how the ruling will affect refugees who are here, Batar said where they once had hope, now there isn’t. He worries the ruling will allow Trump to ban whatever demographic of people he choses as long as it is tied to a national security risk. And that would stop some refugee families attempting to reunite.

Caren Frost, director of the University of Utah’s Center for Refugee and Immigrant Research, is concerned about the message the ruling sends immigrants.

“I think they’re going to see this as threatening to who they are, especially people who have come in from Muslim countries,” Frost said.

But Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority decision, drew a contrast between the vetting of refugees and some of the president’s past statements focused on Muslims.

“The Proclamation is expressly premised on legitimate purposes: preventing entry of nationals who cannot be adequately vetted and inducing other nations to improve their practices,” Roberts wrote. “The text says nothing about religion.”

He added: “We express no view on the soundness of the policy.”

In a rebuttal, Justice Sonia Sotomayor mentioned the president’s past statements, including anti-Islamic retweets and tweets denouncing a newer version of the travel ban as “watered down” and “politically correct.”

Sotomayor said the court "blindly accepts the government's invitation to sanction an openly discriminatory policy.”

In her dissent, Sotomayor referenced a 1944 court decision that allowed the U.S. to detain Japanese-Americans in internment camps.

“As here, the Government invoked an ill-defined national security threat to justify an exclusionary policy of sweeping proportion,” she wrote.

The U.S.’s perception of immigrants began to change around the time of the Vietnam War, said Frost, from the University of Utah, when the U.S. “realized that we were going to have to step up and accept” people who’d worked with us there during the conflict.

Since then, laws have been supportive of refugees, but Frost said she started to see that shift after the recession in 2008, and that change was accelerated by Trump during the 2016 presidential election.

Moudi Sbeity, who owns Laziz Kitchen where Thanon works, said his kitchen is a multi-cultural, multi-lingual microcosm — and the results are delicious.

Right now, three Iraqi refugees work at the restaurant, as well as immigrants from Lebanon, Honduras and Mexico.

With Tuesday’s ruling, Thanon said she feels misunderstood and unwelcome. She said she left her country because she needed to, not because she wanted to. She sought safety, dignity and respect.

Sbeity translated her sentiments: “[The ruling] makes her feel as if there’s no place for her in the world where she can continue to feel that safety and hope and dignity as a person that just wants to live like everybody.”

The Washington Post contributed to this article.

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