PORTLAND, Maine — When war broke out in the infant nation of South Sudan, Peter Machar left the safety of his home in Maine to try to help make peace, his daughter said.
Now Nyamuon Nguany-Machar is worried that her father, a naturalized American citizen, won’t be allowed to return.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to begin building a border wall with Mexico. And as early as Thursday, he is expected to sign another that would temporarily close the United States to broad swaths of people, including some of the world’s most vulnerable.
The orders come as first steps towards fulfilling Trump’s campaign promises to crack down on immigration, which along with the wall included “extreme vetting” and a ban on Muslims. The new policies will tighten the borders in a way not seen since just after the 9/11 attacks, and they are chilling to some in Maine’s immigrant communities, who have waning hopes of reuniting with family abroad and growing worries about anti-immigrant sentiments propagated by the White House.
There is no indication that the Trump administration would hamper citizens returning to the U.S., but Nguany-Machar is nonetheless worried that the new policies would confound her father’s already dire plight.
“It scares me,” said Nguany-Machar, 26, who was born in Ethiopia after her father fled Sudan and now lives in Windham. “To push this kind of propaganda is so dangerous. When I think about South Sudan, so many of the massacres started with something people heard on the radio.”
A former child soldier and member of a non-Muslim tribe, Machar worked as an advocate in Sudanese and South Sudanese communities in the U.S. He returned to South Sudan in 2015 to try to continue his work there, his daughter said.
After being caught up in the country’s civil war, Machar ended up in a refugee camp without any documents to prove his citizenship, according to Nguany-Machar. And with ethnic violence ongoing and the region unstable, she is concerned that he be turned away as a refugee or barred along with Sudanese nationals.
“There really isn’t a difference between Sudan and South Sudan right now,” she said.
Nguany-Machar said she’d last heard from her father a month ago, but declined to discuss the specifics of his situation, saying that his risk could be greater if details become public.
According to drafts obtained by multiple news organizations, Trump’s order would indefinitely prohibit Syrian refugees from coming to the United States, temporarily halt the admission of refugees from any other country, and ban entry of anyone from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Admitting people from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Yemen or Sudan would be “detrimental to the interests of the United States,” the draft order states. Immigration and travel from other Muslim-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan would not be prohibited if the draft order is signed.
Under Trump’s policy the admission of refugees would be halted for 120 days while officials review screening procedures and border agents would vet would-be visitors or immigrants to the U.S. based on ideology and opinion.
According to Portland City Councilor Pious Ali, Nguany-Machar is not alone in her worries. A Muslim immigrant from Ghana, Ali said that following the news of Trump’s draft order Wednesday he’d heard from other members of Portland’s immigrant communities who were afraid of being cut off from loved ones abroad.
“These are law-abiding citizens who live here and pay tax and don’t know what is going to happen to their family members,” said Ali.
The city councilor said that he supports measures to ensure that the people coming to the U.S. don’t pose a risk to its citizens, but argued that blacklisting entire countries is a mistake that America’s enemies may use to foster further fear and hate.
Following the four-month pause, the draft order would cut the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. annually from 110,000 to 50,000. Syrian refugees will not be allowed in “until such time as I have determined that sufficient changes” have been made to screening programs, Trump states in the draft order.
But making refugees the focus on efforts to bolster security is misguided, according to Susan Roche, executive director of the Portland-based Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project.
In addition to being in desperate circumstances, refugees are already more intensely vetted than any other category of people coming to the country, Roche said.
Under past administrations, refugees coming to the U.S. would be put through a multi-phase screening administered by the United Nation, U.S. State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and several other government agencies. The process included lengthy interviews with Homeland Security officials and running the refugees’ fingerprints and biographic information through federal criminal and terrorism databases. The vetting was done abroad, often in refugee camps, and generally took between 18 and 24 months, according to the State Department.
Roche called the Trump administration’s move “very troubling” and Ali suggested it breaks with American tradition and values.
“Our country has a history of opening its doors to people who are facing persecution and I don’t think we should close that door now,” he said.