Ph.D. Student Speaks Out After Being Detained at JFK Under Trump Muslim Ban

Nisrin Elamin is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at Stanford University and a Sudanese citizen. Last week, she was attempting to make it back to the United States before Donald Trump signed an executive order barring immigrants from Sudan and six other nations. She missed a connecting flight. By the time her plane landed at JFK on Friday, the order was in effect, and she was detained. She describes what happened next.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to Democracy Now! I’m very sorry for what you went through. Can you describe what happened to you at the airport, Nisrin?

NISRIN ELAMIN: Sure. I boarded a plane in Sudan shortly after finding out about the executive order. I was trying to get back before it came into effect, but I missed the connecting flight. When I got in, I was asked to—I was escorted into a separate holding area. I was questioned extensively, in part, among other things, about my views about the political situation in Sudan, about whether or not I knew of radical groups in Sudan, whether I knew people who had radical views. I was asked to share my social media handles—not my passwords, but my social media handles. Then I was asked to kind of sit tight and wait as they were trying to figure out what was going on, because the order had literally just been signed, so—or they were just getting notice of it, so they really—the officers didn’t really know what they were doing. And they told me, eventually, that I needed to get transferred to Terminal 4, which is a 24-hour holding area. And before doing that, I had to be patted down. And so, I was led into a room. I was patted down. It was a very uncomfortable pat-down. I was touched in my chest and groin area. And then I was handcuffed briefly. That’s when I started to cry, because I felt like—at that moment, I felt like, "OK, I’m probably going to get deported." And they didn’t—they realized they hadn’t handcuffed the other person who was with me, who was an Iranian green card holder, and so they took off the handcuffs, transferred us to Terminal 4. There were other people at this point that were getting led in in handcuffs who were Iranian and Iraqi citizens with valid visas. Eventually, I got out, after five hours. And I was told—I asked the officer if I would be able to go back to Sudan, because I haven’t finished my dissertation research. And he recommended that I not go back, unless I was willing to be subjected to that whole procedure again. And he said, "You know, I would stay put if I were you," because green card holders were being treated on a case-by-case basis.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And did you get any sense—because there’s been a lot of reports in terms of the lack of preparation for this order. Did you get any sense that the customs officials and the others that you dealt with, the immigration officials, were on the same wavelength or knew what they were doing, or was there a lot of confusion?

NISRIN ELAMIN: There was a lot of confusion. It was very chaotic. And they admitted it to me. It was interesting watching. I feel like when I first got into the holding area, which I was quite familiar with, because when I was an F1 and when I was on a student and work visa, I was often questioned in that room—I never expected to be in there as a green card holder. But, you know, there was a lot of confusion. They didn’t know what to do with us. And in the beginning, I felt like I was being treated quite well. And as the night progressed, I feel like I watched our kind of progressive criminalization, if you will. And that was as people were trying, scrambling to get direction from higher-ups in Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: They weren’t used to holding green card holders, right?


AMY GOODMAN: And so, do you feel you were treated differently as not only an immigrant, but as an African immigrant?

NISRIN ELAMIN: You know, it’s an interesting question. I think, on the one hand, I was probably treated much better than other people, partly because of my affiliation with Stanford.

AMY GOODMAN: Had Stanford helped you come back as fast as you could—


AMY GOODMAN: —once they realized what was happening?

NISRIN ELAMIN: Yes. They paid for my ticket. I also, during the interview, told them that I was a Stanford Ph.D. student.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were a Harvard undergrad?

NISRIN ELAMIN: Yes. So I think that, you know, led to me being detained for five hours, as opposed to another Sudanese person who was detained for 30 hours and is in his seventies. So, I think that that’s one aspect of it. On the flip side, when I went to Terminal 4, they didn’t know my background, and I did feel—you know, I guess the point that I actually want to make is, you know, I think this order is a reflection of a larger trend in this country to criminalize black people, to criminalize immigrants, to criminalize Muslims. And as a black Muslim immigrant, I’m really concerned about that. And I do think that the Somalis and Sudanese, people of African descent who are going to be affected by this, you know, I think they’re going to be treated differently, frankly.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve made the point that other terrorists, people like Dylann Storm Roof, who murdered a bunch of innocent civilians, terrorizing a whole population—you’ve made a comparison to how communities are treated.

NISRIN ELAMIN: Yeah. You know, I think—I guess I want people to realize that—you know, to imagine a ban on white Christian males from schools and churches, where these kinds of terrorist acts have happened, like the one Dylann Roof committed. You know, that would be nonsensical. And I think this is very similar.


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