I first heard about Donald Trump’s now-infamous “Muslim ban” while the fate of my future with a Muslim man from Tunisia was sitting on the desk of a faceless immigration officer, piles of paper waiting to be filed.
Trump wanted to close down mosques. He wanted to suspend immigration from Muslim countries. He wanted Muslims to carry special identification cards that note their religion—a policy that harkens back to Nazi Germany. But this wasn’t the only time Trump has spewed hateful rhetoric to boost his chances of becoming president. From babies to Gold Star families, the Republican nominee’s vitriol is all-encompassing and seems unending. This was, however, the first time his hateful comments directly affected my family and me.
My husband, Houssem, is Muslim. He was born in Tunisia, we met in Paris, and I brought him to the U.S. on a “fiancé visa” in 2013. Now a green card holder and permanent resident, Houssem will apply for American citizenship this October. Right now, we’re the most stable we’ve ever been—both in terms of our relationship and his immigration status—but it wasn’t always this way. Throughout the first half of 2016, Houssem stressed over whether he’d receive his green card before Trump became president. Meanwhile, I worried I’d made a mistake in bringing Houssem to a country that was outright hostile towards people like him.
Immigration is an unsettling process, even if—or perhaps especially if—you’re petitioning for immigration based on marriage. You assume that if you get married and have a genuine relationship, you don’t have to worry. But that wasn’t our experience. Our first five years together were fraught with worries because our relationship was at the mercy of strangers.
From May 2015 to June 2016, when Trump was rising to power, we anxiously awaited a decision about Houssem’s green card. When Trump proposed the Muslim ban, I tried to brush it off. But when he continued to target Muslims after that, I started to fear not just for Houssem’s immigration status, but for his quality of life. What kind of country had he come to? This wasn’t the America I excitedly introduced to the love of my life. I felt ashamed of my homeland and the way Trump and his supporters demonized an entire religion over the acts of a few militant groups.
Houssem and I didn’t discuss Trump incessantly, but it did exist as an undercurrent in our marriage—this very real and quiet fear. What would happen if Trump became president before Houssem received his green card? Would it affect us? Would Trump’s words influence an immigration officer’s decision? How different would Houssem’s life be if Trump became president? Would we even want to stay in America? Was this country safe for him, for us?
Every day, Houssem would field concerned messages from friends in Tunisia or Europe who were worried about him living in America. Meanwhile, I’d try to answer Houssem’s heartbreaking questions like, “Is Trump really going to deport Muslims?” and “Will I be okay here if Trump becomes president?” But I had no good answers. I wanted to offer optimism, but optimism feels foolish in 2016. Hatred, Islamophobia, racism, white nationalism—these are the insane realities of 2016. Optimism is for the ignorant, or so it’s seemed.
“Hatred, Islamophobia, racism, white nationalism—these are the insane realities of 2016.”
Beyond fearing the real-life consequences of Trump’s racist policies, I wondered to myself whether bringing Houssem to America was a good idea. Back in 2011, I was a naïve 25-year-old girl falling in love with a cute boy who was learning English just to talk to me. But even the most innocent decisions have weight; was I too blinded by my privilege as a white woman to recognize that maybe the U.S. wasn’t as welcoming as I once believed it to be? Nothing will change your perspective like living with someone whose religion is maliciously attacked on a regular basis. Although Houssem is much less affected than I am, I carry the burden of having thought America was a safe place for him to build a life. Was I wrong?
When Houssem’s green card arrived in the mail at the end of June, we were both ecstatic. But over the ensuing weeks, I noticed there was a chasm between us—a divide I had created out of fear. Only since the card’s arrival have I felt safe enough to discuss our future together, to build a life together. I didn’t realize that my fear of Houssem being forced to leave had prevented me from fully engaging in our marriage. It felt like we had spent more than a year disconnecting, hedging, letting the worry of being torn apart keep us from believing in our future.
About a month ago, I was talking to Houssem about Trump and my anger over his latest controversy. When I asked Houssem if he was bothered by it, he looked at me and said, “I have my green card now—there’s nothing he can do to me.” Rather than feel relief, however, I felt sorry that Houssem had ever feared being singled out in the first place for being Muslim. How sad that he once thought America would force him to leave over rampant, illogical Islamophobia. It made me angry. Perhaps Houssem has come to terms with America’s hateful political climate, but I still haven’t.