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Iranian Student Blocked from Entering U.S.: Trump Remarks on Muslim Ban Remind Me of the Nazis

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A federal appeals court will hear arguments today on whether to restore President Donald Trump’s executive order banning people from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen from entering the United States. We speak to one of the people caught up in Trump’s ban, Saira Rafiee, a doctoral student enrolled at the CUNY Graduate Center through an F1 visa. She was initially barred from entering the country last week. We speak to her and Hadi Ghaemi, founder and director of Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A federal appeals court will hear arguments today on whether to restore President Donald Trump’s executive order banning people from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen from entering the United states. On Monday, more than a hundred companies, including tech giants Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, Twitter and Uber, filed documents with the court saying they oppose Trump’s Muslim ban. Top former officials, including former Secretaries of State John Kerry and Madeleine Albright, also filed documents saying they oppose the ban.

AMY GOODMAN: Lawyers for the states of Washington and Minnesota filed a brief to the court Monday arguing to reinstate the ban would "unleash chaos again." The ban was temporarily halted Friday when U.S. District Court Judge James Robart in Seattle issued a nationwide temporary restraining order on the ban.

JUDGE JAMES ROBART: The court concludes that the circumstances that brought it here today are such that we must intervene to fulfill the judiciary’s constitutional role in our tri-part government. Therefore, the court concludes that entry of the above-described TRO is necessary, and the state’s motion is hereby granted.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Judge Robart’s ruling sparked multiple outbursts on Twitter by President Trump, who called him a "so-called judge." Robart was appointed by President George W. Bush and unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 2004. One of Trump’s tweets read, quote, "Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!" unquote. Over the weekend, the Department of Homeland Security began allowing visa holders affected by Trump’s order to board U.S.-bound flights.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by one of the people who was caught up in Trump’s ban, Saira Rafiee. She’s a doctoral student enrolled at CUNY Graduate Center through an F1 visa. Rafiee spent winter break visiting her family in her native Iran. She was trying to return to New York to school, when customs officers in Abu Dhabi told her she couldn’t go back because of the president’s executive order. We’re also joined by Hadi Ghaemi, the founder and director of the Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Saira, why don’t you describe what happened to you?

SAIRA RAFIEE: Well, I was at Tehran airport in line. I was about to check in, when I heard that Donald Trump has signed the order. And I got on the flight to Abu Dhabi, but there, I was told that I’m not—I cannot get on the flight to New York, so I had to stay there for about 18 hours, along with 11 other Iranians, before we could get on the flight back to Tehran.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you shocked?

SAIRA RAFIEE: Well, no, because I think it was on Wednesday that we heard that such an order was going to be signed, so I was kind of prepared for that. But it was—the people were shocked, because so many people had changed their flights. They had changed their plans. They wanted to go back to the U.S. in March, for example, but they had to change their plans and get on a flight and find a flight. And they were really shocked and disappointed. And I heard so many heartbreaking stories at the airport.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, you were—then you stayed in Abu Dhabi for several days, or what—what happened?

SAIRA RAFIEE: No, for 18 hours.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: For 18 hours.

SAIRA RAFIEE: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And then you were finally able to get back on another flight, into?

SAIRA RAFIEE: Tehran.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Oh, back to Tehran.

SAIRA RAFIEE: Back to Tehran, yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I see.

AMY GOODMAN: And then how did you end up coming back?

SAIRA RAFIEE: Well, on Friday, I heard that because of the court order in Massachusetts, Lufthansa airline let people from these seven countries board. So I got on a flight to Boston. And then, when I was on my way here, the other court order was signed. And so I went to Boston first and then came back here.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, you mentioned that you had run into other people at the airport. Can you talk about some of the stories of some of the people that you then on social media talked about, as well?

SAIRA RAFIEE: Well, yeah. I talked about a friend of mine. She wanted to—she lives here, and she wanted to go back to Tehran to visit her sister, who had cancer, but she had to cancel her flight. And on Friday, her sister died. So—and there are lots of—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So she never got to see her sister there.

SAIRA RAFIEE: No, she didn’t. But what I want to say is that, I mean, because the Iranians are professionals here—some of them are students—I mean, they have a louder voice here. But my concern is that there are so many other people from other countries who have worse situations and are, for example, fleeing war, and they don’t have any home to go back to. And those people are being denied entry to this country. And that is really, I mean, disastrous. I think we should focus more on their stories. I mean, my story is not a good example of what people are going through.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Fox host Bill O’Reilly’s Super Bowl interview with President Trump.

BILL O’REILLY: So, another big week for the Trump administration. Judge Gorsuch, that rollout went very smoothly, I think.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Yes, it did. Yes, it did.

BILL O’REILLY: All right. But the refugee deal, not so much.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think it was very smooth. You had 109 people, out of hundreds of thousands of travelers, and all we did was vet those people very, very carefully.

BILL O’REILLY: You wouldn’t do anything differently if you had to do it over again?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Look, in life, you do things—

BILL O’REILLY: I mean, some of your people didn’t really know what the order was.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, that’s not what General Kelly said. General Kelly, who’s now Secretary Kelly, he said he totally knew, he was aware of it, and it was very smooth. It was 109 people.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Donald Trump. Your response, Saira? And also, your studies? You say your studies help you understand what’s going on today.

SAIRA RAFIEE: Yeah, I’ve been studying social psychology of fascism for some years, and I’m really somehow shocked by the similarity between, for example, Trump’s literature and the content of his speeches to the propaganda of Nazism or the American agitators of the '40s and ’50s. And what is going on there is that he is using the discontent of the people and their feeling of insecurity and powerlessness and their uncertainty about their future, and he's targeting all these feelings against people who are not responsible for it, who are victims just like many of his audience. And I think—I mean, that is what really worries me. I don’t know, well, where this would end. I mean, I think—I mean, I was shocked by—I listened to so many of his speeches during the primaries, and I was shocked by the lack of any kind of rational argument. He does not talk about the causes of the problems; he just uses—he just focuses on this feeling of frustration among his audience. And he is using Muslims and immigrants as scapegoats.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask Hadi Ghaemi of—you’re from the Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. You hear Trump saying it was only 109 people, but the numbers of people—

HADI GHAEMI: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —affected by this ban are phenomenal. Just Iranian students in the United States alone, there’s about 12,000 of them. I’ve heard that as many as 17,000 university students are from the seven countries that are subjected to this temporary ban. Your response to that 109 figure?

HADI GHAEMI: Yeah, no, it absolutely—we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people over time. Yeah, maybe there were 109 on the few flights that were coming in on a given day. As you mentioned, there are 17,000 students from these countries. There are tens of thousands of people on work visas in this country from those seven countries, including the staff of my own organization, that we now don’t know what’s going to happen when it’s time for renewal. There are many people on green card, again, hundreds of thousands of them, and their policy on greed card keeps changing all the time. So, we’re talking about lives of, I would say, much, much larger number of people being impacted.

And there is, again, no rationality to this order. I think it was very important yesterday when Judge Robart asked the government lawyer in the court of appeals that: What is the rationality, and what is your fact for issuing this executive order? And they had none. They really had none. This is what’s mind-boggling—a policy that is upending lives of so many people with no rationality.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this will be an unusual hearing at 6:00 today, because one of the judges—it’s a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit. One of the judges is in Hawaii. Another one is in Arizona.

HADI GHAEMI: Right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And one is in San Francisco. So they’re going to be doing a telephone hearing—

HADI GHAEMI: Telephone, right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —in effect. Your expectation of the judiciary handling—how it’s handling this?

HADI GHAEMI: I think this is an extremely critical moment for American democracy and the soul of what we call checks and balances in this country, after—from founding of this country. If the judiciary cannot stand up to these irrational actions early on, I’m worried by the time the Supreme Court has been picked and completely tilted toward Trump’s preferences, we are going to have no institutions to do checks and balances, because Congress is failing already. The Republican Party is completely failing its own principles. And today’s hearing will be a benchmark for seeing where are we headed to.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us. Hadi Ghaemi is with the Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. And Saira Rafiee is a Ph.D. candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. Before I met you, I knew everything about you, Saira, because so many people—seemed like the entire university was rallying behind you to get you back to the United States.

SAIRA RAFIEE: Yeah, and I’m really grateful for all those people, and especially the union that I’m a member of, PSC. And as I said, I was fortunate enough to have the support of a union, and I was a member of a union. And I think in this situation, I’m convinced more than ever how important the unions are. And I just wanted to mention that I know here in New York there are so many students from private universities who have been trying to and fighting to get their right to have a union, and the administration of the universities are not—are denying them this right. And I’m also aware of so many other cases whose universities and schools are not as supportive as CUNY was to me. And I’m really worried about these things, because I think here, I mean, one aspect of this whole situation is that what is at stake is the independence of academia. And I hope, and I think it’s really necessary, that the schools, the academia, takes a step and tries to defend its independence.

AMY GOODMAN: Saira Rafiee, Ph.D. candidate at CUNY Graduate Center. That’s the City University of New York.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Harvard University professor Stephen Walt on Donald Trump’s foreign policy. Stay with us.

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