Travel Bans and Walls: A Look Back at Immigration Policy and Sport in 2017

By Paulina A. Rodriguez Burciaga

Yesterday, in a discussion over immigration policies with senators and other lawmakers, president Donald Trump reportedly said, in reference to Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” suggesting that the U.S. instead welcome immigrants from countries such as Norway. For some, this is just another example of hate-filled rhetoric from the White House. For others, it is a wake-up call to systemic issues of racism regarding commentary on and policy making of immigration laws in the United States.

For me, though, keeping an eye on immigration narratives has been something close to Peter Parker’s “Spidey senses”, and I suppose, for any other undocumented immigrant growing up in the United States. I have carried the hope for immigration reform since the moment I learned I was not a legal resident of the U.S.—around the time my friends were off getting summer jobs, driving permits, and such. Suddenly, I became aware that I did not have access to the same opportunities other high school students did. Fast forward 15 years, a Deferred Action Childhood Arrival (DACA) approval, the pursuit of a Ph.D., a “green card”, and the 2016 presidential election, and my Spidey senses were off the charts. I, in part because I study sport from historical perspectives (along with others), wondered how the changes in the White House would impact the world of sport—among other things.

It would not take long to find out.

The Trump administration fulfilled one of its campaign promises by implementing a travel ban on January 27, 2017, just days after the president’s inauguration. The executive order denied entry to citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen), as well as indefinitely halted the processing of refugee applications from Syria. While sport may seem auxiliary when it comes to immigration policy, 2017 showed that these issues are present and hold significant implications for the world of sport.

Toward the beginning of the year, athletes from various sporting organizations joined thousands of Americans and expressed their disapproval of Executive Order 13769, or what soon came to be labeled as the “Muslim ban,” with the majority of voices coming from the basketball and soccer worlds. United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) captain, Michael Bradley, spoke out against the president’s ban, expressing his sadness and embarrassment. “The Muslim ban is just the latest example of someone who couldn’t be more out of touch with our country and the right way to move forward,” he said. Bradley’s sentiment showed a significant shift from his post-election comments, where he emphasized the country’s “obligation to come together and get behind our new president.” Bradley’s teammates shared their captain’s concerns, expressing support and referring to the ban as “harmful” and “divisive.” United States Women’s National Team (USWMNT) member Megan Rapinoe, a vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, was joined by Alex Morgan, Heather O’Reilly, and others in labeling the ban un-American.

The ban also brought up concerns regarding travel among athletes, coaches, and organizations. The NBA took action by contacting the U.S. State Department and released a staff report with the “purpose of gathering information to understand how this executive order would apply to players in [the] league who are from one of the impacted countries.” NBA players Luol Deng, a former Sudanese refugee, and then-rookie Thon Maker were among those who fell within the grasps of the ban. The NBA depends on international talent. Through its Basketball Without Borders program, it successfully recruits players from all around the globe—Sudan being one of them. Policies like the travel ban can have implicit effect on the way that recruiting happens within sporting organizations.

There were, however, athletes who spoke in support of the Executive Order. MLB Pitcher, Tanyon Sturtze criticized those who complained about not being able to travel to Iran. Former San Francisco Giants’ infielder Aubrey Huff praised the president for following through on his campaign promises, and added “If you have time [to] march, protest and riot. Maybe it’s time for something called a job.”

Unfortunately, there were several instances where the ban impacted athletes making their way to and from the United States. One such case was that of U.S. Olympic fencer Ibtijah Muhammad, who was detained at U.S. customs for two hours in early February. Muhammad did not specify when or where the incident took place, she simply stated it had occurred “a few weeks ago,” placing the incident around the time the ban took effect. She did, however, express her feelings to a group at a conference in Palos Verdes, California, saying,

I can’t tell you why it happened, but I know that I’m Muslim. I have an Arabic name. And even though I represent Team USA and I have that Olympic hardware, it doesn’t change how I look and how people perceive you.

Whether this matter occurred after the ban or not, the Muslim community felt the repercussions of such divisive rhetoric spewed by Republican presidential candidate, and now president, Donald Trump—as hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise. Indeed, during a talk at Penn State University in the Spring of 2017, Muhammad addressed the crowd with hesitation regarding her tenure on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition—an appointment from former President Barack Obama. As it stands, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) website does not list any individuals as council members or council co-chairs.

Two more incidents that caught the public eye were those of the U.S. Wrestling and Iranian Weightlifting teams. The former came as an immediate response to the ban, where Iranian officials banned the United States freestyle wrestling team from entering the country to participate in the Freestyle World Cup. The decision to allow U.S. wrestlers to compete was reversed once a federal judge suspended the executive order the following weekend. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has attempted to reinstate the ban two times since its initial request, with some level of travel restriction in place. While most of the Iranian team did not have issues, the State Department denied two-time Olympian and gold medalist Kianoush Rostami’s visa request to attend the International Weightlifting Championship in Anaheim, California, in November. After working with the Department of State, USA Weightlifting managed to help reunite Rostami with the rest of Team Islamic Republic of Iran.

With the DOJ set to continue pushing for a travel ban, one can only wonder if U.S. sport federations and organizations will encounter issues of this nature in years to come. Amid concerns from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) quickly worked to secure a pledge from the State Department “with regard to expedited access to the Unites States for athletes and officials in order to participate in international sports competitions.” The quick reaction from the USOC helped pacify the IOC, which potentially helped secure the 2028 Olympic games bid for Los Angeles. The future of the U.S. bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup also remains to be set, as FIFA officials also share the same anxieties over Trump’s policies.

The next major immigration policy change came in the Fall of 2017, and it concerned an Obama-era order that affected an estimated 800,000 undocumented immigrants—Consideration for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

It was not clear whether the administration would rescind DACA, as the president’s message changed from that of his campaign, where he promised to “immediately terminate DACA” to a more sympathetic tone, claiming he would “show great heart” when it came to DREAMers. In the Fall of 2017, president Trump came close to a compromise with Democrats on the issue. However, he maintained his stance on securing our southernmost border saying, “We’ll only do it if we get extreme security, not surveillance but everything that goes with surveillance. If there is not a wall, we’re doing nothing.” The purported U.S.-Mexico border wall was one of the most campaigned-on promises during the 2016 election. Despite the efforts of Democratic leaders, the president rescinded DACA on September 5, 2017, leaving thousands of undocumented immigrants with uncertainty about their future. 22,000 DACA recipients lost their DACA status on October 5.

Another policy change that affected immigrant communities was the administration withdrawing Temporary Protected Status (TPS) from approximately 59,000 Haitian and about 5,300 Nicaraguan immigrants—they must return to their home countries by January 2019. As of January 8, 2018, the Trump administration also ended protection for 200,000 Salvadorans who currently hold TPS status. TPS is awarded to individuals from countries that have been affected by natural disasters, civil unrest, or health crises. While the ‘T’ in TPS stands for temporary, members of these communities have lived in the U.S. for decades, going back as far as 1991. The State Department is forcing them back to a country they may no longer call home.

These discussions continue to be filled with racism. As recent conversations have entailed potential bipartisan DACA and TPS deals, Trump has entered into negotiations with Congress, offering a package that may include granting legal status to the 800,000 undocumented immigrants in exchange for $18 billion for his wall, for so-called border protection. But his “shithole” comment showed it’s more than just that, because this does not mark the first time the president has directed racist comments towards immigrants. In 2015, during his campaign announcement,  Trump referred to Mexican immigrants as “criminals, drug dealers and rapists.”

The immigration policy changes to DACA and TPS coupled with the racist rhetoric, inflict fear and uncertainty among immigrant communities. Furthermore, the Trump administration intensified its attack on undocumented immigrants by increasing the number of raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). What The Guardian referred to as a type of “psychological war-fare.” This is very real and it impacts immigrant communities all around the U.S. For instance, people are forced to cancel communal events, as was the case in Philadelphia, where “El Carnaval de Puebla” (a Cinco de Mayo celebration) was shut down due solely to anxiety from members of the community.

Terminating DACA and TPS has heavily impacted immigrant communities, as well as the often-forgotten athletes within them. Such is the case of Lizandro Carlos Saravia, a nineteen-year old high school soccer player from Gaithersburg, Maryland. Saravia was born in El Salvador and immigrated to the U.S. when he was a minor. He managed to earn a scholarship to attend Louisburg College, a junior college in North Carolina, while dealing with removal orders from ICE. However, during a routine immigration check, Saravia was detained and deported, despite his non-criminal record.

Furthermore, other cases, like that of Nicolle Uria’s, who’s volleyball aspirations have been cut short, can be found all over the country. As a DACA recipient, Uria’s future hinges on Congress’ and the administration’s ability to come to a deal on immigration reform. Los Angeles Galaxy’s Miguel Aguilar’s future also remains uncertain. As one of the only athletes to publicly discuss his Deferred Action status, Aguilar fears for his professional future.

Although it’s been a few years and occurred during a different political climate, I had similar experiences. As an undocumented junior college softball player, I was given the chance at a four-year program in 2008; however, my fears of deportation ended those dreams. I thus empathize with what immigrant communities are experiencing, especially at a moment in time when racist taunts from fans or opposing players can erupt at any given moment, not to mention the continuing racist rhetoric regarding immigration throughout the country.

The decisions on DACA and TPS are important when it comes to understanding the place of sport within these communities. Although DACA recipients immigrate from various countries around the globe, the majority come from Latin America—with Mexico making up 79%. Similarly, the majority of TPS recipients come from Central America(Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua). An already under-represented population in sport, members of the Latina/o community face an even greater challenge when it comes to generating sport participation. A third of DACA recipients fall between ages 16-20, meaning most of them attend high schools. In 2017, with more ICE raids, schools all around the nation noticed an increase in absences. This may explain the dearth of young Latina/o athletes from the playing fields.

This piece began as a look back at how immigration policy affected sport in 2017. But, as we are already nearly two weeks into 2018, it is important to show how this trend is continuing. As we focus on the “shithole” comments from president Trump, we should also pay attention to the continuing legal and legislative battles over DACA and the travel ban. On January 10, A federal judge reversed the ruling on DACA, allowing those who are eligible to renew, but not accept new applications. Furthermore, litigation over the travel ban will continue over the course of the new year, potentially making its way to the Supreme Court. These policies have a direct and indirect impact on real lives, which carry serious implications. 2018 will be a decisive year for immigration policy, as the administration addresses DACA, TPS, and the travel ban—bringing with it a new host of questions for the sports world.

Paulina A. Rodriguez Burciaga is a Ph.D. Candidate at The Pennsylvania State University, in the History and Philosophy of Sport Program. Her research interests include women’s sport history and physical culture, gender, and sexuality in sport, and LatinX experiences as they intersect with sport. She can be contacted at par43@psu.edu, or on Twitter @paulina_serran0.

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