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In the Wake of Trump's 'Muslim Ban' Efforts, Californians Invoke Intersectionality to Preserve Civil Liberties

A new state law bars the federal government from using state data to create a registry of Muslims and other American communities.
A man carries a sign welcoming Sikh travelers at Los Angeles International Airport on June 29th, 2017, in Los Angeles, California.

A man carries a sign welcoming Sikh travelers at Los Angeles International Airport on June 29th, 2017, in Los Angeles, California.

President Donald Trump's revised travel ban was halted in the 11th hour by a federal judge just before it was expected to go into effect Wednesday. But almost since Trump's election, Californians—those both directly and indirectly affected—have been busy scrambling to fight not just the ban but also broader White House policies seen by many as targeting Muslims at home and abroad. Finally, they're seeing some legislative results.

On Sunday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the California Religious Freedom Act, which blocks any federal Muslim registry in the event that the White House makes good on an idea that Trump repeatedly proposed during the 2016 campaign. The law, among other things, prevents the state from helping the federal government to collect information on religious and ethnic origin and from handing over existing data to the federal government.

Many in the American Arab and Muslim community met the law with applause, lauding what they consider to be a rare gesture of civil protection in the time of Trump.

"The California Religious Freedom Act sends a strong message against the Trump administration's discriminatory policies and hateful rhetoric by providing critical protections to Californians," says Rashad al-Dabbagh, the founding director of the community advocacy group the Arab American Civic Council.

While efforts to register Muslims would affect more than three million people living in the United States, the hope, for activists like Dabbagh, is that lawmakers will reproduce this law elsewhere. California has a long history of incubating and exporting progressive legislation to the rest of the country on everything from public health to the environment. That is the hope here of California Muslim-American community leaders.

"This is a groundbreaking piece of legislation, the first in the nation, that would provide such protections against such a registry that would mainly target people from Muslim majority countries," says Sameena Usman, the government-relations coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations' San Francisco Area branch.

Usman says other local governments throughout the nation have already shown interest in similar moves to bar the federal government from a potential attack on civil liberties. For example, just after Trump's election, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to sue the federal government if it sought to register Muslims.

The California Religious Freedom Act owes its tongue-in-cheek name to State Senator Ricardo Lara (D), who authored the law. Lara, the first openly gay person of color to serve in the California State Senate, said the name is meant to take back the term "religious freedom," which many say has been coopted by right-wing bigots as a means to terminate or refuse to hire lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

"Freedom of religion is a core constitutional value, and it should never be used to legitimate intolerance," Michael Soller, Lara's spokesman, tells Pacific Standard. "When President Trump seeks to divide people by fear and hatred, it has never been more important to stand united as Americans."

The hope for politicians and community leaders like Lara is that, not only will the Religious Freedom Act serve as a catalyst for similar legislation in other states, but that more broadly, so too will intersectional activism and policymaking, whereby disparate American communities work together to protect each other's civil liberties, guided by the ideology that, where one American suffers, the country suffers.

Many activists, including Usman, agree that intersectional movement is the only way for American communities to emerge from global turbulence under the Trump administration unscathed. "Those who seek to restrict the civil liberties of one group most likely would seek to do so with other groups as well. We have seen the targeting of members in our community who are undocumented and those who are most vulnerable, and similarly we are seeing this with the Muslim community or those perceived to be Muslim," she says, praising Lara's work. "We must stand firmly together and make other people's causes our own. We are all one community and are stronger together."

State Senator Ricardo Lara, pictured here in 2011.

State Senator Ricardo Lara, pictured here in 2011.

There has not yet been any overt talk of the registries mentioned by one of Trump's advisers Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach just after Trump's election, but community advocates warn that discriminatory policymaking is underway. Indefinite restrictions blocking travelers from Iran, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya were set to go into effect Wednesday. But on Tuesday, a federal judge in Hawaii placed a temporary restraining order on the bid, ruling that it "plainly discriminates based on nationality." The ban‚ now halted pending an appeal from the Department of Justice, marks Trump's third attempt to make good on campaign-era promises to restrict the entry of Muslims to the U.S.—also barred visitors from Chad and North Korea as well as some government officials from Venezuela. Many say these additions amounted to a fairly clear attempt to sidetrack critics, including several federal judges who've judged past attempts unconstitutional and discriminatory, from calling this a "Muslim ban."

Much as Lara's work to support fellow Californians of another faith is an example of the intersectionality activists hopes to export, so too is the Japanese American community's support for Arab and Muslim Americans.

As Brown signed the California Religious Freedom Act into law Sunday, Angelenos including AACC's Dabbagh protested the ban at the Japanese American National Museum in Downtown Los Angeles, on a street where, in 1942, Japanese Americans were rounded up to be sent to detention camps. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the detention of around 120,000 Americans of Japanese origin.

Trump, for his part, has expressed his support for Franklin D. Roosevelt's treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

"It was fitting that a place that bore witness to such human tragedy should be where people come together to prevent another act of discrimination," says Ann Burroughs, president and chief executive officer of the Japanese American National Museum.

Many Japanese American community leaders agree with Burroughs that, as Lara put it, all Americans must stand up for each other.

"The leadership of the United States failed not only Japanese Americans, but all Americans," says Mitchell Maki, the president of an educational center, Go for Broke National Education Center, which works to tell the story of Japanese American World War II veterans who defended the U.S. despite their families' incarceration. Maki's office is also located on the historical street where Sunday's protest took place. "Today, the context is eerily similar. Race prejudice and war hysteria certainly are present. The ability of the different branches of government to lead is being questioned. In 1942, it was the Japanese Americans. In 2017, may it not be Arab and/or Muslim Americans. Otherwise, once again, we all stand to lose."

Moving forward, Lara is set to address the fears of other communities in the time of Trump. "In response to widely publicized immigration raids outside schools and court buildings, Lara has proposed legislation to prevent Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from detaining immigrants in state buildings without a warrant. He has also proposed legislation to prevent the state from contracting with companies that build Trump's wall, which will waste taxpayer dollars and further divide our nation," Soller says. The bills will be heard next year.