THERE was a time when the United States was very far away. When people who lived there came back home to visit, it was an event. Scores of relatives would show up to speak to them, to find out what life was like in that very faraway country. When people were moving there, the departure was dreaded for days and months. When the evening in question arrived, entire clans complete with infants and wizened old folk accompanied them to the airport and, because security issues were not the prohibitive force that they are now, often right up to the gate and almost the aeroplane.
Even less considered in those times were the issues of visas and passports: who had which one and who was entitled to go where, who could sponsor parents and who could visit often.
The distance between Pakistan and the US and other Western countries has shrunk in recent years, thanks to the advances made by jet travel and the connections made by social media in particular and the internet at large. Several flights ply their way between Pakistan and faraway cities on the other side of the globe.
The proposed rules, if passed, will eliminate family reunification as a category of visas, limiting who US citizens can sponsor.
A journey that used to take a long time is now the business of just over a day. Add to this the ease and frequency in communication via Skype and WhatsApp and such, and you have a situation where absence is not what it used to be. Pakistanis living in the US come and go and often don’t miss a beat in their absence. The cousin’s wedding, the niece’s birth, can all be seen and heard and digested and dissected via the technology of video calls.
One thing, however, has not become easier. While 9/11 brought on the heavy burden of the aspersion of association with terrorism on the shoulders of every Pakistani, the Trump era is one that will likely lead to a near ban on people going from here to there or the other way around. It is true that 9/11 forced the Pakistani diaspora in the US to take on many hardships, to bear the burden of suspicion and paranoia, to look hard within their own communities for those with radical or extremist ideas; but none of that compares with the more regulated onslaught imposed by the Trump administration.
To begin with, unlike the Islamophobes of old, who wanted to set FBI agents on every young Muslim male, the net that the Trump administration wants to cast is even wider. The targets are not simply visa holders whose lack of constitutional rights makes it easy for them to be subjected to all sorts of surveillance, but green card holders (legal permanent residents) and even citizens.
In the latter case, a newly established ‘denaturalisation’ taskforce, which has been put together by the Trump administration, is looking into the applications of thousands of already naturalised citizens whom they suspect of fraud. The denaturalisation procedures can be both civil and criminal. In the former case, they may be started at any time, even if decades have passed since the individual was naturalised. Pakistanis, already tainted owing to their connections to terrorism and being Muslim, are likely to face the brunt of this assault on naturalised citizens.
Then there is the issue of naturalisation itself. New rules proposed (although not yet passed) by the Trump administration forecast huge changes to some of the ways via which many Pakistanis sponsor relatives and children to join them in the US. The proposed rules, if passed, will eliminate family reunification as a category of visas, limiting the only people that US citizens can sponsor to spouses. This means that US citizens will not be able to sponsor parents or siblings, and many waiting for years in long queues for their applications to be processed will find that their future plans have been shattered.
Given that the relationship between Pakistan and the US is not particularly cordial at this time, it is even possible that Pakistan will be added to the list of banned countries. Given that the US Supreme Court has allowed the ban on certain nations to stand, there is nothing in the way of the US using the prospect of banning a country and its citizens from entry as the basis for threatening them. Threats, we know, are a particular favourite of President Trump.
For those Pakistanis who travel frequently between Pakistan and the US, or who are long-time green card holders, this is a time of caution. If they are eligible for naturalisation and applying to become citizens, they must do so immediately. If there are children abroad who wish to sponsor their parents, they must file the petition without delay, since, even while the future of these petitions is in doubt, it is always better to have a petition in place prior to a rule change than to have no petition at all.
If the last decade of the US was the decade of wars waged abroad, this decade is looking increasingly to be one in which the US will be turned into a fortress whose inhabitants are ruled by an avowed white nationalist president. It is true that the Trump era will not last forever, but it is very likely that it will wreak more havoc and introduce more disarray into the lives of innocent immigrants or would-be immigrants than any in recent memory.
Pakistanis and Pakistan, for whom the US president has much contempt, are likely to suffer the consequences, as those in need of visas and green cards cannot play offence; they can, however, play defence and make absolutely sure they know what will affect the lives of those living in the North American diaspora, or those banking their dreams on becoming a part of it.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2018