The young man sighed audibly as he spoke last week about President Donald Trump’s now-frozen executive order intended to temporarily keep refugees and others from seven nations from entering the United States.
A freshman at La Cañada High School, he feared the order — then in effect — would keep his aunts from obtaining visas needed to visit and attend his sister’s graduation this spring.
Armen, as he asked to be identified, was born in the United States and has lived in California all his life. But many of his relatives are in Iran. His parents — who are of Armenian descent — met in the United States after emigrating separately from Iran three decades ago, he said.
“People look at it like, ‘OK, this happened in a random country, why does this affect me?’” Armen said. “Everything affects everything, no matter if you live in the U.S. or some country in the Middle East or Russia. Everything affects everything.”
For now, the fate of the order rests with three federal judges who heard oral arguments in a challenge to the order Tuesday afternoon. But the legal battle could go on another several weeks if the U.S. Supreme Court is tasked with making the final decision.
When Trump signed the order Jan. 27, it halted entrance for 90 days for individuals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, and indefinitely from Syria, all predominantly Muslim countries. It also barred refugees from any nation for 120 days.
The administration describes the restrictions as a means of strengthening national security, citing an intent to “better detect would-be terrorists from receiving visas.”
The order reads, in part: “Deteriorating conditions in certain countries due to war, strife, disaster, and civil unrest increase the likelihood that terrorists will use any means possible to enter the United States. The United States must be vigilant during the visa-issuance process to ensure that those approved for admission do not intend to harm Americans and that they have no ties to terrorism.”
The order also included people who already were approved to come to the United States and, in its immediate aftermath, some who were legal permanent residents.
All of that spurred legal questions and caused uncertainty around the nation and beyond — and close to home, too.
At Caltech and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, about 60 students, postdoctoral scholars and staff are from countries named in the order. An email sent by the university announced that an informational meeting was to be held Jan. 31 to assure those likely to be affected that the institution will do all it can to support them.
“Caltech depends — indeed thrives — on the free flow of persons and ideas in our community,” read the email, credited to Vice Provost Cindy Weinstein and Provost Edward Stolper.
While former high-ranking national security officials, diplomats, tech companies, law professors and a host of civil liberties organizations teamed to try to block the order in court, California’s state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson issued a statement on Jan. 30 urging all of California’s 1,025 school districts to adopt “Safe Haven” resolutions to remind the public of existing laws that protect student records from immigration questions.
Neighboring districts in Burbank and Glendale prepared such resolutions and La Cañada Unified School District Superintendent Wendy Sinnette said at last week’s Governing Board meeting that her district is considering it.
Sinnette also referred to a December statement by former board President David Sagal, which outlined the district’s policy for protecting the rights of students, staff and families within the district: “Despite emotional rhetoric or changes in our political climate, or dramatic shifts in any one or more branches of our government, we can all have faith that our many-layered institutions will preserve a safe environment in our schools.”
Former Governing Board member Andrew Blumenfeld, a LCHS graduate who now teaches 5th grade at Crown Preparatory Academy in Los Angeles, tweeted on Jan. 28: “I’ve taught children who were refugees. They’ve made me a better person.”
None of those students came from the seven countries named in the order, Blumenfeld noted, but he said it’s easy to draw parallels between the plight of people seeking refuge, regardless of their nation of origin.
He pointed to an experience with one student toward the end of the last academic year. Blumenfeld said he welcomed a 10-year-old boy to his class from a South American country. The boy spent the first three days sobbing from the start of the school day until it was time to go home.
“He was just clearly distraught,” Blumenfeld said. “It was just so obvious that he had been on a horrible, emotional roller coaster and dropped in a new world with people he didn’t know and a language he didn’t understand.
“What stands out to me,” he added, “is that it was such a jarring start and even in the tiny period of time [before the school year ended], it was a remarkable transformation. When we finished the year, he was the most smiley kid I’ve ever seen. His English was better than zero, but still not very good, but his commitment to copying down everything, and moving past being distraught to making friends and trying his hardest to participate however he could, it was such a window into the spirit required to survive.”
A SYRIAN FLAG
Eight years ago, Maryam Al Atassi moved from Syria to LCF with her immediate family. She said she appreciates President Trump’s desire to fortify the country, but she doesn’t believe the seven-nation ban was the most reasonable way to do it, suggesting she might prefer tighter surveillance of immigrants instead.
Al Atassi now is a LCHS graduate and a U.S. citizen; she’s studying biochemistry at Cal Poly Pomona and working at a clinical lab. Recently, she fulfilled her civic duty as a member of a trial jury for the first time.
But she can’t bring herself to hang her small Syrian flag from her rearview mirror in her new car, which she always had on display in her old car.
“It’s a small flag,” she said, “But I’m always in my car, so I liked to look at it. And I really want to put it back up, but I don’t have the guts to. I like the car, and I don’t want anyone who has negative feelings [about Syrians] to ruin my car.”
She said she’s witnessed people’s perception of her native country change since she arrived in the United States.
“Before, people would not assume I was Arab — I wouldn’t get stereotyped,” she said. “When I did mention, ‘I’m Arab,’ it was, ‘Oh.’ People did not know Syria before, but these last two years, as the problems in Syria escalated, now they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ or they start questioning. When it comes to the comments about culture, now it’s, ‘Oh, wait, you guys support terrorists?’ There’s become a negative connotation.”
When she reported for jury duty recently, she said she sat near a man who worried aloud that a dark-skinned man who entered the courthouse with a duffle bag was “a Muslim radical.”
When the man speaking — who Al Atassi said was Hispanic and tattooed — continued to air his suspicions about Muslims, the young Muslim woman turned her attention from her phone to him.
“I asked him, ‘You’re Hispanic, are you affiliated with drugs?’” said Al Atassi, who explained that she wanted him to consider how unfair it is to make assumptions about people — Hispanic or Arab — based solely on their appearance.
“People should base their judgment … not on what the media wants them to know or what one person did out of I-don’t-know-how-many-million, but on personal interactions,” Al Atassi said.
Said Armen, the LCHS freshman: “I would love to travel where I want freely and visit my family. [For a while], I thought we might see a start of a friendship of some kind, that maybe we’ll have peace and less stereotyping and things like that.”
Then he sighed: “I guess not.”