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Local immigrants feel effects of executive order

Renee Gopal of Ashley, N.D., was born in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country not listed in President Donald Trump's executive order two weeks ago, but Gopal, who is a U.S. citizen, still feels the effects of the ban.

"The ban doesn't affect me physically, but it does affect me because we are formed and shaped by the traditions we are surrounded by," Gopal said. "Something I've always carried with me is to treat others how you want to be treated, so for me, it is hard to say it doesn't affect me when I do that."

Gopal is part of North Dakota's 2.7 percent immigrant population. After the process of obtaining multiple visas and a permanent residence, she became a U.S. citizen 10 years ago.

The executive order issued by Trump on Jan. 27 suspended entry of citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries - Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya - into the U.S. for 90 days, all refugee resettlement for 120 days and refugees from Syria indefinitely.

The order included people with immigrant or nonimmigrant visas and people with dual citizenship with other nations and initially affected permanent legal residents or green card holders. The Department of Homeland Security said last week that green card holders will be let in with additional questioning on a case-by-case basis.

The order was blocked by federal court Judge James Robart on Friday, allowing previously affected travelers and refugees to enter the U.S. The U.S. Department of Justice has filed with a federal appeals court to reinstate the order. The hearing in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was held Tuesday afternoon, and a ruling is expected soon.

From immigrant to citizen

Gopal came to the U.S. as a student for undergraduate and graduate studies. It was a long process to go through, and she said she never took for granted that a visa would be given.

Gopal returned to southeast Asia after graduating, and married her husband, a U.S. citizen, in Malaysia. Gopal said she was traveling with a Malaysian passport and U.S. spousal visa after she got married until she returned to the U.S.

When she came back to the U.S., Gopal then went through the process of getting her green card, which required a fee, medical examination, paperwork and a thorough sit-down interview. The green card then allowed Gopal to travel with her Malaysian passport but also gave her easier access into the U.S. because she was now a resident.

Gopal became an American citizen in 2006.

"We are an American family now, I am very grateful for that," Gopal said.

Gopal said the decision to give up her Malaysian citizenship was a difficult one. She said she doesn't think people realize how difficult it is to give that up because it is your birth home and the place you grew up.


Gopal said she has encountered two misconceptions about immigrants during her time in the U.S.

She said she's been lucky because there are not enough Malaysians here to be stereotypes about them. Gopal said she grew up bilingual, which made it easier to assimilate into U.S. society. But even with her level of fluency in English, Gopal still fought the perception that foreigners with accents don't speak or understand it.

Another misconception Gopal has seen but doesn't directly affect her is that all Muslims are radicals, and a threat to our way of life. Although Gopal is not a Muslim, the misconception is something she feels because of her connections to her Muslim birth country and friends and family who are Muslims.

"It's heartbreaking that we are judging an entire people by the actions of few," Gopal said.

Dr. Mohamed Sanaullah, member of Islamic Society of Fargo Moorhead, said unfortunately some are now acting like certain people aren't welcome. But many people in the community have been more open and are telling immigrants they are welcome.

"It's dividing people, dividing neighbors and dividing communities," Sanaullah said.

The judge's ruling halting the plan has been good so far, Sanaullah said, but the Justice Department is challenging the ban, so it is unknown what the outcome will be.

Sanaullah said green cards holders in the community have been advised not to travel. People who are here legally don't want to chance visiting family members back home and not be able to get back in the country, he said.

Gopal said her extended family lives in different countries than those affected by the ban, but Gopal's daughter has friends whose families were directly affected and she realized how easily families can be broken apart.

The Muslim people Gopal grew up around in Malaysia were very moderate, "live and let-live people," not extreme, she said. A 2008 Gallup Poll looking at a variety of Muslim countries found that 93 percent of respondents had moderate views.

"If we are not honestly committed to dealing with the challenge of terrorism, we need to be building goodwill with moderate Muslims so we can work with them," Gopal said.

The ban alienates moderate Muslim people, Gopal said. She said part of the terrorist groups' propaganda is that the U.S. is anti-Islam, and that becomes a recruiting tool. So the ban just highlights that the country is anti-Muslim, and what makes it even more so is there is no criteria of why these countries were chosen in the order, Gopal said.

A memo from 900 U.S. Department of State diplomats opposing the ban was delivered to officials through the "dissent channel." The memo warns the policy will not keep America safe and harm efforts to prevent terrorist attacks, according to CNN.

There hasn't been a terrorist attack coming from the countries listed in the ban, Gopal said. According to CNN, White House officials said former President Barack Obama had already deemed the seven countries "countries of concern" for terrorism and placed restrictions on certain travelers. But Trump's order is more broad and does not include any countries where the 9/11 hijackers came from - Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Lebanon.

Gopal said she is not advocating that the U.S. should have open borders, but it needs to be more transparent with its policy on immigration.

The order to give preference to Christian refugees is a big blow on building a relationship with the Muslim world, Gopal said. Refugees are fleeing terrible things, such as war and civil unrest, which don't discriminate, she said.

"So by saying only that we're only taking in Christians, we're saying non-Christians aren't as valued," Gopal said. "It's by the grace of God we land in our religion or country. We don't ask for it; we are born into it."

Gopal said she doesn't think there is any awareness of how similar different religions are or of the contributions Muslim scholars have made to math and science. She said if people thought about those things more, they would have a different perception of Muslims.

Gopal said that even though the travel and refugee suspensions are in the order as temporary actions, there's no way to conceive what is going to happen. She said the ban normalizes troubling behaviors.

Sanaullah said many refugees have post-traumatic stress after experiencing war and other bad things in their countries. The U.S. was the country that welcomed them, but now they are thinking they were wrong, he said.

People should get to know refugees and their Muslim neighbors; just because they are different, doesn't mean they are dangerous, Sanaullah said. Most Muslims are normal people, he said, and they are suffering from this more than anyone else.