WASHINGTON, D.C. — New York immigration advocates said Nov. 2 that President Donald Trump used a tragedy in their city to further vilify immigrants instead of unifying the country at a time when the U.S. needs it most.
“We must focus on rising beyond acts of terror like Tuesday’s and come together, mourn the lives lost, and work toward a better future,” said Pabitra Benjamin, executive director of Adhikaar, a New York-based nonprofit that serves the Nepali-speaking community.
Benjamin was one of about a half-dozen representatives of various immigrant communities in New York who spoke in defense of immigrants in a conference call organized by the New York Immigration Coalition.
They defended particularly the Diversity Visa Program that Trump attacked and vowed to get rid of after revelations that the man accused of killing eight and injuring 11 on a New York City bike path Oct. 31 had entered the U.S. via that particular program.
The program was established by the Immigration of Act of 1990 and signed into law by then President George H.W. Bush. It benefits annually about 50,000 immigrants from nations with lower levels of immigration to the U.S.
Sayfullo Saipov, the man accused of the New York attack on Halloween, is said to have arrived in the U.S. in 2010 from Uzbekistan via the diversity visa. Trump said he would “immediately initiate work to get rid of this program.”
Darakshan Raja, a Diversity Visa Program recipient and co-director of D.C. Justice for Muslims, said the program is vital for many communities and provides educational opportunities, many that benefit women.
“It’s really critical that such programs that exist not be taken away because they do offer opportunities and lifelines for individuals,” she said.
Instead, it is being turned into another reason to vilify certain immigrants, she said.
“I feel that every time there is a terrorist attack that happens, and the individual happens to be Muslim, rather than holding the individual accountable, there is this push to hold entire swaths of communities accountable,” she said.
“Really punitive policies take away key immigration programs for our communities … we need to hold these individuals accountable for what happens, for what they individually did,” Raja continued, “but again, for hundreds of us, it’s about trying to get relatively better economic stability. It’s really time for politicians to stop playing politics over our livelihood. We’re just trying to survive.”
Abed Ayoub, legal director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said during the conference call that since taking office, the president has shown two different ways of dealing with tragedies and they both depend on the race or origin of the perpetrator.
In Las Vegas, when mass shooter Stephen Paddock fired at more than 500 concertgoers, killing 58, Trump didn’t call for any policy changes on gun control, Ayoub said, and that amounts to a double standard.
“When the perpetrator is Muslim or Arab, there is an immediate disproportionate response that largely discriminates against disadvantaged groups,” Ayoub said.
Benjamin added that after the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas “we didn’t go after the accountants in Las Vegas because that would have been ridiculous and this approach is ridiculous.” Paddock, the 64-year-old mass shooter of the Las Vegas killings, was an accountant.
“The same would apply here. Going after the Diversity Visa Program is using the tragedy in New York City to divide communities,” she said.
Representative Yvette Clarke, D-New York, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and native New Yorker, said during the call that she would continue to support the diversity visa that the president attacked.
“No act of terrorism ever brings the spirit of New Yorkers down or breaks that spirit,” she said. “We are resilient in the face of tragedy because of and not despite our diversity. It’s truly just despicable that Donald Trump has chosen to politicize this national tragedy to further his anti-immigrant agenda instead of trying to bring our nation together.”
The group was not the only one to criticize Trump for his remarks about those with the diversity visa. The politically conservative Wall Street Journal, in a Nov. 2 editorial, said that “it’s unfortunate and counterproductive that President Trump’s first instinct has been to politicize the tragedy by blaming — what else? Immigration.”
The editorial said that reducing immigration or improving background checks wouldn’t have prevented the Halloween attack in New York or other attacks.
“While we’re all for better vetting of immigrants and monitoring of terror risks, the sad reality is that a radicalized U.S. citizen could also have committed the attack,” the editorial said.