Mayor Kasim Reed spent parts of last weekend at the Atlanta airport, trying to help disentangle families impacted by President Donald Trump’s executive order barring travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days.
The order, which also indefinitely blocked Syrian refugees and suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days, caused more than 100 individuals from the affected nations to be detained at airports across the country.
The selective measure was meant to fulfill Mr. Trump’s promise to apply “extreme vetting” procedures to refugees and other immigrants from areas affected by Islamic terrorism.
While it applies to mostly Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — Mr. Trump has insisted it doesn’t constitute the full “Muslim ban” he promised on the campaign trail before walking it back as the measure was criticized even by some leading Republicans as an un-American “religious test.”
In Atlanta on Saturday, Mr. Reed met with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials holding 11 people for hours without access to an attorney. Among them were green-card holders returning from Iran and reportedly a 76-year-old with a heart condition.
The mayor said it should have been a “moral right” to let them contact legal counsel, he told reporters from ethnic and international media at a City Hall briefing Monday in advance of his upcoming State of the City address.
A federal judge in Brooklyn quickly issued a stay that prevented visa holders from being sent back to their countries, and green-card holders (permanent residents) were ultimately exempted, but uncertainty reigned in the hours after the order was signed.
The detainments sparked protests Sunday at airports around the nation, including a demonstration at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport that drew between 5,000 and 7,000 people at both the domestic and international terminals, according to estimates of the Atlanta Police Department.
“Sunday’s protest of approximately 7,000 demonstrators resulted in zero arrests and zero injuries. It was peaceful and overall had a very minor impact to our operations,” airport spokesman Reese McCranie told Global Atlanta in a statement.
While Mr. Reed sees it as an “unconstitutional” order that goes against both the American spirit and the country’s practical economic interests, he saw a silver lining for “cities of the future,” which embrace diversity and see attracting immigrants as essential to their vitality.
“I actually believe that Trump’s executive order is going to improve the city,” he said to the group of mostly Hispanic reporters, noting that immigrants will flock to the urban areas where they feel welcome.
“I think when people are raising their families, they’re going to want to be someplace where they’re allowed to live their dreams, not someplace where the political leaders are bashing them, attacking them and trying to make them ‘other.’ And that’s why I’m being so clear on where I stand right now and I’m setting a marker for anyone who occupies my office,” he added.
Mr. Reed laid out the case for inclusion, noting that foreign-born residents play “disproportionately positive” role in the growth of the city, accounting for more than 20 percent of population growth and upwards of 12 percent of business startups.
The mayor decried the order’s implementation without consideration for legal permanent residents, who have jobs and livelihoods here. In some cases they were lumped in with refugees and other non-immigrant travelers.
The ban has also created uncertainty for foreign students of Middle Eastern and African descent in Atlanta.
Georgia Tech, which is located within the city of Atlanta and has the most foreign students of any state institution, didn’t have any direct student travel plans affected. But some local students nad professors have said in social media posts that they’re now hesitant to leave the country for fear they won’t be allowed back in.
Georgia Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson stopped short of criticizing the administration, but stressed in an email to students that the university will keep stakeholders up-to-date on changes that could affect them. He also mirrored the mayor’s stance on the university’s international community overall.
“You are welcome here, and you are valued,” Dr. Peterson wrote.
While most green-card holders were eventually let through, many refugee families were left up in the air — quite literally.
Some who had gone through the approval process and were in flight at the time of the order were detained at the border. Ultimately, though, about 900 who had received approval in advance of the order were allowed to enter.
Mr. Trump contested via Twitter that reports criticizing the rollout were exaggerated given that 325,000 people entered the nation without incident over the weekend. His controversial order was supported by some congressional Republicans in Georgia.
Mr. Reed said support for anti-immigrant measures at the state level is one reason he doesn’t pick a fight with the Georgia General Assembly by declaring Atlanta a “sanctuary city.” A veteran of the state legislature himself, he sees it as a pointless battle because it would create unnecessary backlash.
He instead aims to continue the work of the Welcoming Atlanta initiative, which brought about an Office of Immigrant Affairs that is carrying out a 20-point action plan to better integrate the foreign-born community into the life of the city.
He also pointed to his record of instructing police not to pursue undocumented immigrants and the city’s support for issues like in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants.
And he highlighted the work of the city’s Office of International Affairs in welcoming delegations that have led to increased foreign investment.
Inclusion has been part of Atlanta’s “winning formula” since it supplanted Birmingham as the economic center of the South, partially as a result of its stance during the Civil Rights movement, he said, repeating a well-worn narrative of how Atlanta achieved its relative preeminence in the region.
“That was black and white then, but it’s no different than the conversation we’re having right now, except this time we’re becoming fully inclusive — where Asian people and Hispanic people and Muslim people and Jewish people and Hindu people and Buddhist people, happen to be, that is the future.”