Biden Executive Actions Make Unity Possible for Millions of Marginalized Americans

President Joe Biden wasted no time after his inauguration before starting to overturn many of the most odious actions of the Trump administration, issuing sweeping executive orders on everything from racial equity and immigration to climate change and a more just foreign policy.

Critics, including the editorial board of the New York Times, have expressed discomfort with this display of executive power, and some have specifically labeled the orders divisive. But to whom? For millions of Americans, the new president’s executive actions are the much-needed first steps to helping a nation heal from the deep wounds of the Trump era, with policy that again reflects public will. Indeed, in a Feb. 7 survey analyzing 29 actions, the vast majority of the decisions enjoy broad support. Mandating mask use, reinstating COVID-19 travel restrictions, extending the moratoriums on eviction, extending the freeze on student loan payments, and increasing food stamp benefit, among others, enjoy more than two-thirds support.

So, rather than divide Americans, as conventional wisdom might have it, these actions are a powerful and necessary precondition for unifying Americans. Unity to me is not defined by whether senators in Washington, D.C. are getting along. Unity to me is whether my daughter and I are welcome in the United States, and are once again included in the American story.

One executive action in particular reconnects my household with our adopted country: Biden overturning, on his first day in office, President Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban,” which blocked travelers from largely Muslim nations from entering the United States. As a Muslim, an immigrant, and a mother, I have struggled these past four years to figure out how to talk to my teenage daughter about how the U.S. government came to practice state-sanctioned bigotry.

I’ve long sought to instill in my daughter a love of this country as one that has historically welcomed immigrants and people of all faiths, races, colors and creeds — a place that offered opportunity, no matter their circumstances in their place of origin. I would tell her my own story by way of example. I lived through civil war and a coup in my native Pakistan, and saw revolution in nearby Iran, before coming to America, meeting another immigrant, starting a family, and making it my life’s work to protect democracy and advance human rights.

Separating Families

But for four years, my family and I have watched in horror as the Trump administration separated immigrant children from their families at the southern border as well as through the Muslim ban, legalized discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, and stoked xenophobic fears against immigrant families. All the while, it systematically barred Muslims from many nations from even entering the country.

I will never forget the 2019 Congressional hearing on the travel ban, as Ismail Alghazali, a U.S. citizen who works at a Brooklyn bodega, fought back tears telling members of Congress how his Yemeni wife and two young children were trapped halfway around the world in Yemen. “I do not have words to describe my love for my wife and my kids,” he said. “It hurts me so much that it’s now been more than a year since I have seen [them].”

In other cases, foreign students went through long and costly application and scholarship processes only to lose them when their visas were cancelled, their dreams shattered — Nigerian journalist Wole Olaoye’s son, for example, who had been accepted to a graduate program in California to study artificial intelligence.

Trump repeatedly codified bigotry into law, making a mockery of this nation’s founding principles that my daughter is taught in school. Trump’s defeat, and the executive actions overturning some of his most heinous acts, mark the beginning of a new era.

But it will be a long road. The forces Trump unleashed didn’t disappear when he walked out the White House door. No sooner had his toxic cloud drifted south than a new menace appeared, in the form of a woman elected to Congress from Georgia – Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Conspiracy Theories as Domestic Terrorism Threat

In a video from last summer that was surfaced by Politico, Greene defiled Islam with her bilious nonsense. “If you want Islam and Sharia law, you stay over there in the Middle East,” she said. “You stay there, and you go to Mecca and do all your thing. And you know what, you can have a whole bunch of wives, or goats, or sheep or whatever you want. You stay over there. But in America, see, we’ve made it this great, great country. We don’t want it messed up.”

This offense against Islam, just one of her many targets of hate and disinformation, comes from a woman who won election embracing vile, fact-free theories advanced by the QAnon movement, which the FBI has branded a domestic terrorism threat. As the journalist Mona Altahawy pointed out in a recent column, it’s difficult to imagine a Muslim espousing the kind of hate pouring forth from Greene and not landing behind bars. Muslims, Altahawy points out, are still routinely racially profiled in this country, and have been removed from airplane flights for merely texting in Arabic or supposedly making airline staff feel uncomfortable.

And yet Greene roams the halls of Congress wholly unaccountable for the lies and hate that spurred acts of violence at the Capitol just two weeks ago. “Greene is a reminder that while the U.S.  has obsessively focused its ‘War on Terror’ on brown Muslim men both outside and inside its borders,” Altahawy writes, “this white, blonde, Christian woman inside its Capitol is the face of terror at home.”

This bigoted rhetoric — whether from Greene, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), or a number of other GOP members of Congress promulgating lies and hate — requires swift condemnation. The Feb. 4 vote by the U.S. House of Representatives to remove Greene from her committee assignments was one small measure of accountability, but one that dishearteningly broke on partisan lines rather than our elected representatives’ values.

A New Story

And yet, with a stroke of his pen, Biden has given me a new story to tell my daughter — one built on hope, not hate. We watched together as our new president announced his executive action repealing the Muslim ban as one of his first acts. We felt a surge of pride as he denounced the ban as a terrible policy that imperiled national security, frayed international partnerships, and was, in Biden’s words, “a moral blight that has dulled the power of our example the world over.”

To those who have criticized this early and decisive action, I ask them what they think it would say to people like me to allow these hateful, divisive policies to stand even one more day than needed? What would it say to the African American woman from Georgia who faced down incredible physical risk to overcome voter suppression and rising white supremacy if the new president had failed to begin the process on Day One of making racial equality once again the goal of our federal government? By prioritizing a repeal of the Muslim ban, a U.S. president told American Muslims that their concerns matter and that they are being heard.

For a moment, I finally feel like we can breathe more easily, hit reset and stop doom-scrolling and fear-watching cable news. My daughter greeted the news as an act that “restores equality among people of different faiths, stops people thinking stereotypes and shows that the assumptions beneath the ban were false.” Now she can focus on her studies and the joys of growing up, rather than worry what horrors her government might inflict next.

Biden’s executive orders certainly do not represent full accountability for Trump’s administration, nor do they force the kind of search for truth and reconciliation that the United States needs to genuinely move forward. But in reminding us of the country’s aspirational values – ones a majority of the public supports – they are a first step. The healing has begun.

IMAGE: U.S. President Joe Biden prepares to sign a series of executive orders at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office just hours after his inauguration on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden became the 46th president of the United States earlier today during the ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Laleh Ispahani

Laleh Ispahani (@lispahani) is managing director of Open Society-U.S., where she oversees the region’s domestic and foreign policy work on issues of democracy, equality and justice.