The travel ban hastily put in place in late January, blocked by the courts, and replaced yesterday by a revised executive order signed by President Trump, is impeding the free movement of artists, authors, and scholars coming to the US. This week’s order maintains a ban on new visas and visa renewals for citizens of six majority-Muslim countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) and imposes a 120-day halt on the admission of any new refugees to the US.
Though intended to be less vulnerable to judiciary challenges than the first executive order, many believe that the new ban is similarly unconstitutional for amounting to discrimination based on religion. Like its predecessor, the new travel ban seems liable to wreak havoc on the lives of any and all foreigners living in or traveling to the US, even those already equipped with the requisite visas and documents.
In early February, Thair Orfahli, a Syrian refugee and photographer whose images are included in the International Center for Photography’s (ICP) new exhibition Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change, found out that he would not be able to attend a panel at the museum because his US visa application had been refused. “Thair, whose powerful experience is included in the section about refugees, spent months working with our curator Joanna Lehan on editing his images and coordinating his participation in a panel discussion at the Museum on March 8,” ICP’s Executive Director Mark Lubell said in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. “Unfortunately now, given the current political climate, he won’t be there to share his perspective first hand.”
The Argentine curator Juan Garcia Mosqueda, who has lived in the US for a decade and runs the Chelsea art and design space Chamber, claims he was denied reentry by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents after a recent trip back to Argentina. In an open letter recounting the ordeal, he says that following an interrogation and 14-hour detention at New York’s JFK Airport — during which he says he was denied legal counsel — Mosqueda was escorted by armed men onto a flight back to Buenos Aires. “I was prohibited from the use of any means of communication and had no access to any of my belongings, which were ferociously examined without any warrant whatsoever,” he wrote. “I was deprived of food. I was frisked three times in order to go to the bathroom, where I had no privacy and was under the constant surveillance of an officer. Finally, I was escorted by two armed officers directly onto the plane and denied my documents until I reached my destination, Buenos Aires.”
Mosqueda’s essentially unverifiable account — as CBP told CNN, the agency is not able to comment on individual cases — is sadly consistent with the stories of three writers and artists, collected by PEN America on Friday, who were detained at US airports by CBP agents who claimed they had the wrong visas, or for no apparent reason at all.
On February 23, the artist Aaron Gach, a US citizen, was detained at San Francisco International Airport on his way home from the opening of an exhibition in Leuven, Belgium, which includes his art and activism project the Center for Tactical Magic. After being questioned about the nature of his art, he was essentially forced to give CBP agents access to his smartphone and all the personal information and data accessible from it. His account of the ordeal, which he made available through a public Google document, tells of a superficially civil but no less intimidating and aggressive encounter.
The Australian children’s book author Mem Fox was stopped late last month at Los Angeles International Airport on her way to deliver the keynote address at a literacy conference in Milwaukee. She described the ensuing two-hour detention and interrogation in an opinion piece for the Guardian, concluding: “In that moment I loathed America. I loathed the entire country. And it was my 117th visit to the country so I know that most people are very generous and warm-hearted.”
The Holocaust historian Henry Rousso, a recent visiting professor at Columbia who is a French citizen and was born in Egypt, was also detained while flying into the US late last month. Arriving in Houston on February 22 to participate in a symposium at Texas A&M University, he was held for 10 hours at George Bush Intercontinental Airport by CBP agents who accused him of having the wrong visa and trying to work illegally in the US. He was only released after Texas A&M intervened on his behalf.
“This incident has caused me some discomfort, but I cannot stop thinking of all those who suffer these humiliations and legal violence without the protections I was able to benefit from,” he wrote of his experience. “How can one explain this zeal if not by the concern to fulfill quotas and justify increased controls? That is the situation today in this country. We must now face arbitrariness and incompetence at all levels.”
While these encounters with CBP agents might seem arbitrary in isolation, they suggest a pattern of increasingly overzealous and Kafkaesque enforcement by agents emboldened by the orders and rhetoric of the new US president. Artists, writers, and other cultural producers are in unique positions to share their experiences through public channels, but for each of them there are countless other detainees who have no such recourse. Indeed, all the people mentioned above make a point, in their respective accounts, of noting their privilege compared to many of the other travelers they saw languishing in CBP waiting rooms.
“[The agents] made me feel like such a crushed, mashed, hopeless old lady and I am a feisty, strong, articulated English speaker,” Fox wrote of her experience. “I kept thinking that if this were happening to me, a person who is white, articulate, educated and fluent in English, what on earth is happening to people who don’t have my power? “