Virginia college student impacted by Trump travel ban speaks out as Attorney General and Governor promise to fight back

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*This article was originally published in RVA Magazine, however due to a website redesign, it is among the archives that have not yet been restored.

RICHMOND, Va.–Most students in their final semester of college are concerned with their thesis projects. However, Najwa Elyazgi, 23, has a very different concern. Elyazgi is a Libyan student at George Mason University who studies international relations. She was outside the United States to renew her student visa when President Donald Trump signed his executive order that banned travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Elyazgi is just one of many people who were affected by the travel ban, and elected officials in Virginia have taken legal action to challenge the executive order, including Governor Terry McAuliffe, Attorney General Mark Herring, and Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

Elyazgi had been abroad to visit her family in Libya before traveling to London to renew her visa. It was just prior to a connecting flight in Istanbul when Trump’s order was released. After seven days in a hotel room in Istanbul, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring greeted her at Dulles International Airport.

“He reached out many times to me and to my lawyer to check in on me and say what’s happening,” Elyazgi said of Herring who was instrumental in assisting with bringing her back.

In addition to helping Elyazgi, Herring urged judiciaries to declare the order unconstitutional and block its implementation. On Feb. 13 Judge Leonie Brinkema did just that.

“I saw this unlawful, unconstitutional, and un-American ban for exactly what it is and I’m glad the Court has, too,” Herring said in response to Brinkema’s preliminary injunction. “The overwhelming evidence shows that this ban was conceived in religious bigotry and is actually making Americans and our armed forces less safe at home and abroad.”

Federal Judge Leonie Brinkema, who oversaw the challenger here in VA, agreed saying Trump’s use of the term “Muslim ban” on the campaign trail was a centerpiece for months.

“The press release calling for it was still available on his website as of the day this Memorandum Opinion is being entered,” Brinkema wrote.

This preliminary injunction will protect immigrants while the case is pending, though the Trump administration has signaled a preference for a new executive order rather than fighting for the original EO in court.

But Elyazgi is all too familiar with the process of going home abroad and returning to the US and she challenged Trump’s rhetoric around the process being easy for “bad dudes” to slip through.

“We go through high security as Libyans and you need to provide a lot of information,” Elyazgi said.

As if written for TV, the very document that has helped block the order, the US Constitution, was what got Elyazgi interested in studying in the US in the first place.

“I was looking for a place that would welcome me and would protect my religious right,” she said.

In the weeks following the order, many have argued President Trump’s travel ban is unconstitutional. However the 8 U.S. Code § 1182 in the Constitution states that “whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.”

As for Trump’s order, it blames “war, strife, disaster, and civil unrest” for creating a hostile environment for terrorism to breed.

“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 reads.

And while it avoids coming out to directly target one faith, keeping in line with constitutional language, it’s the president’s history of condemning Islam which has hurt his argument.

Despite Trump’s cited reasons for the ban, many have argued against it. Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner cosponsored a bill that urged the ban to be rescinded.

According to Warner, Congress was neither consulted nor informed of the order before it was issued. He stated that members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have expressed concern.

“Some of the President’s biggest checks on his policies so far have come from the Judicial system and the press, yet both have been directly attacked by the Administration in an attempt to destroy their credibility,” Warner said. “I urge the President to stop these attacks and respect the role that our courts and the press play in supporting our democratic system.”

Prior to the 9th Circuit Court’s ruling against the ban, allies of immigrants were swift to show support. Thousands of people gathered in airports around the country to protest and lawyers flocked to them as well to offer legal help.

“There is no question that the President has broad authority over immigration, but Congress and the Judicial Branch also have a responsibility to check that the Executive’s actions reflect the letter and spirit the law,” said Warner. “While I remain committed to working in a bipartisan manner to strengthen our nation’s borders, I predict any attempt to target individuals based on their religion or to deny a certain group of their constitutional rights will continue to be met with strong resistance.”

With Trump planning to reissue a more streamlined version of the travel ban, one that would not place green card or visa holders (such as Elyazgi) in limbo, there is also the concern that it may be more difficult to challenge in court.

This is where the resistance Warner spoke of will be crucial, and VA Governor Terry McAuliffe is among those pushing back.

“We are a nation of immigrants. Unless you’re Native American, you came from somewhere else,” McAuliffe said at an event ahead of a the National Governor’s Association Winter Meeting last week. “We’re not going to let the President of the United States trample on basic civil liberty.”

Najwa Elyazgi
Image courtesy of Najwa Elyazgi

As for Elyazgi, she is glad that people are speaking out in opposition of the ban. She plans to go onto her Master’s degree before returning to Libya where she wants to apply what she’s learned to improve her homeland.

Currently, Elyazgi is working to stay on track with her studies. As a self-described perfectionist and self-starter (the kind who has earned academic scholarships), she usually prefers to work ahead as often as possible and the travel ban has not been conducive to that.

Though she feels a little overwhelmed doing 20 credits worth of work in less time, she said that her professors have been very understanding.

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