U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar is the only person in Congress who came from one of the countries on President Trump’s travel ban list. Credit: Richard Marshall | MPR News

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As the only legislator in the United States Congress who came from one of the countries on President Trump’s travel ban list, Representative Ilhan Omar has made it a personal crusade to undo the policy.

“It’s a priority of mine to fight against it,” Ilhan said recently, speaking to Sahan Journal from her office in Washington, D.C. “It’s personal to me.”

On Wednesday, July 22, she took to the House floor to remind fellow legislators of something she’s been saying since before she was elected to Congress: The so-called travel ban is a racist policy meant to exclude Muslims from the U.S.

The ban was a controversial executive order that Trump signed on January 27, 2017, just a week after he came to power. The order, as Ilhan and others see it, fulfilled a promise Trump had made as a candidate in 2015, when he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

Citing national security concerns, the initial executive order put a temporary halt to the arrival of immigrants and refugees from several Muslim-majority countries—including Ilhan’s native country, Somalia. Later versions expanded the list to include non-Muslim nations like Venezuela and North Korea.

But Ilhan, speaking on the House floor on that day, said that the decision to suspend the arrival of Muslims from certain Muslim countries is just another attempt by Trump and his administration “to wrap their hateful policy up in a false story about national security.”  

Ilhan’s message wasn’t a mere reminder of the three-year-old executive order, which sparked demonstrations and outrage across the country. It was a formal statement the freshman made to encourage her colleagues to support the No Ban Act, which seeks to repeal the travel ban and limit the power of the president—any president—to issue such bans in the future. 

Moments later, the legislation, which she co-sponsored, passed by a 233-183 vote.

Initiatives like this have won praise from immigration advocates, who see the first-term congresswoman as an undisputed champion for immigrants and refugees in Minnesota—and across the country. Her name is written all over the major immigration bills that have recently passed in the House.

Now, Ilhan, a democrat who’s gained national name recognition for her unapologetic progressive stance, faces a surprisingly contentious primary against Antone Melton-Meaux, a soft-spoken African American attorney and minister. And the debate on her record has been about everything but immigration. 

On a recent Monday morning, Ilhan took 40 minutes out of her day—which included planning for the memorial ceremony for Civil Rights icon and longtime Georgia congressman John Lewis—to speak with Sahan Journal about the often overlooked immigration policies she’s fought for in Congress.  

Those bills include the American Dream and Promise Act, which provides temporary foreign-born residents a pathway to permanent resident status; and the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act, which grants permanent residency to Liberians with temporary status,      as well as undocumented Liberians.  

More than that, Ilhan has become the go-to person for many immigration attorneys, immigration advocates and her constituents who are seeking information from federal government agencies. These included the difficult bureaucracies like the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Homeland Security as well as the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Ilhan is also working on a decade-old barrier faced by  operators of the international money-transfer system called hawala. Because American banks refused to work with them, hawala businesses have been transferring stacks of cash through the airlines. Ilhan said her office is in conversation with the U.S. government and the Somali government to find a way to safely transfer money for the millions of people who rely on remittances—that is, payments sent between family members.        

Immigration experts such as Mustafa Jumale, policy manager for the national advocacy group Black Alliance for Just Immigration and co-founder of Black Immigrant Collective, and Ana Pottratz Acosta, assistant professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, have been taking notes on Ilhan’s work around immigration.

“She’s the strongest advocate on immigration issues in Congress,” Mustafa said. “She’s advocated for us  immigrants. She’s created a space for us. She’s held congressional briefings to help uplift our voices on the hill.”

For Ilhan, immigration issues—the travel ban, the deportation raids, the arbitrary detentions of undocumented residents, the barring of people from Muslim-majority countries, the separation of migrant children from their parents—these aren’t obscure subjects for legislative debate. They’re personal. 

Ilhan was once a refugee. She was only eight years old in January, 1991, when civil war erupted in Somalia. To survive the flying bullets and the armed militia in Mogadishu, she and her family crossed the capital city, treading from one neighborhood to the next, in search of safety.

The trip was traumatic. “On the way to my grandmother’s home,” she wrote in her memoir, This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman, “I saw bodies piled up on the street. We stepped over them.”

The family eventually escaped Mogadishu in a cattle truck. After a brief stay in the coastal towns of Barawe and Kismayo, Ilhan and her family made it to a refugee camp called Utange, in Kenya. 

Here, Ilhan served as the family’s “errand boy.” Each morning, she would carry a plastic container or two to fetch water at stations in the camp. She would also stand in line for the free race, beans and cooking oil the United Nations distributed. 

In 1995, at age 12, Ilhan and her family arrived in the U.S. as refugees. She spoke only two phrases of English: “Hello” and “Shut up.” First, the family was resettled in Arlington, Virginia, where Ilhan learned English and completed middle school. 

Two years later, Ilhan and her family moved to Minneapolis to be close to relatives—and to join the growing, vibrant Somali community. It was here that she cut her political teeth, working as a community organizer, a campaign manager and a policy aide in City Hall.

In 2016, Ilhan became the highest ranking Somali official in the U.S. when she defeated Phyllis Kahn, who represented Minneapolis in the state House for more than four decades. Two years later, Ilhan ran—and won—Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District seat after Keith Ellison resigned his post to become Minnesota attorney general.

Over the past two years, Ilhan became the most vocal critic of the Trump administration, especially when it comes to immigration issues such as the travel ban, which has drastically reduced the number of Somali refugees in Minnesota. 

In 2016, for example, 1,410 Somali refugees arrived in the state, according to a report by the Minnesota Department of Human Services. In 2017, the year the travel ban went into effect, that number fell to 400.

In both 2018 and 2019, a total of 140 Somalis came to the state.  

“Dreams are deferred,” Ilhan told Sahan Journal, speaking of the impact the policy has had on Muslim immigrants and refugees. “Families are separated. As someone who sees the United States as a beacon of hope and inclusive country, it’s been really a stain on our nation’s history.” 

The No Ban Act, which passed in the House, is an attempt to remove that stain. But how likely is it to go on the Republican-controlled Senate floor for consideration? “Our hope is that we will be able to pass it in the Senate,” Ilhan said. “And we have a commitment, if we get Biden as our president, that he will sign these bills into law.”    

In addition to the No Ban Act, Ilhan has been working on other immigration legislation, including policies that affect people under the Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which is granted to designated nationals in the U.S.; the Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), which allows certain nationals facing persecution or natural disasters in the home to say and work here; and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (known as DACA), which offers protection to undocument immigrants brought here as children.

In January, Mustafa said, he worked with Ilhan to extend the TPS program for more than 500 Somalis who had been on the verge of deportation. In March, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) extended the program for 18 months

In June 2019, the House passed the American Dream and Promise Act, which Ilhan co-sponsored. It seeks to put residents under TPS, DED and DACA on a pathway to citizenship. 

“It was really a proud moment for us to take a step and push through this legislation,” Ilhan said.

When Ilhan isn’t working on bills or writing letters to federal agencies on behalf of her immigrant constituents, she’s holding town hall meetings on immigration. Or she’s sitting in roundtable meetings with advocates to talk about the most pressing immigration issues in Washington.     

“The thing that I’ve appreciated personally, as someone who’s an immigration advocate, is that she’s very willing to use her platform to talk about a lot of immigration issues,” said Acosta, from Mitchell Hamline. “Her staff is very good and very responsive with helping individual case advocacy and that kind of thing.” 

For the better part of  Ilhan’s first term, Trump and right-wing activists have often targeted her as a foreign enemy, through Fox News, speeches, campaign mailers, and on social media.

Last summer, for instance, Trump falsely claimed that Ilhan “hates” America and that she often sympathizes with extremist groups such as al Qaeda. A couple of months later, in September, he retweeted a post that Ilhan “partied” in celebration of the terrorist attacks on September 11.  

The FBI also investigated last summer a death threat note against Ilhan. The threat said that there’s a “very capable person with a very big ‘Gun,’” who will take her out. “They say we can’t get the Somali Stink out of the clean Minnesota air,” it added, “but we’re going to enjoy the adventure.”

Ilhan said she isn’t surprised that politicians and racist social media trolls have been targeting her for being Black, Muslim and an immigrant. “I’m a complete unicorn,” she said. “Here in Congress, anyone who has any of the marginalized identities that I represent would face a hostile environment, let alone someone who has all of them at the same time.” 

Ilhan says she’s tried to keep her emphasis on the work: be that legislation to address “social and economic neglect” or addressing workplace safety issues for Amazon employees. She points to the work she’s done in the wake of the George Floyd killing, raising more than $300,000 for nonprofit organizations and community efforts to help rebuild the neighborhood     .

As Ilhan faces a political battle in the August primary, her chief challenger, Melton-Meaux, has criticized her for neglecting her constituents and for not showing up to vote on important matters in Congress.

“We don’t need someone distracted with Twitter fights,” Melton-Meaux, recently told Politico. “I don’t want to be a celebrity. I want to serve the people, and people are tired of the politics of division and distraction.”

Critics like Melton-Meaux, Ilhan said, choose to ignore her track record in Congress: “the tremendous work that we’re doing and the exceptional achievement that we’re having.”      

She continued to label these detractors as sound bits meant to animate the privileged few—“the millionaires and billionaires”—who are used to having direct communication with members of Congress. These people, she said, don’t like to see her fight for the poor, racial minority and immigrant communities. 

“For us,” Ilhan said, “it’s the workers, the waitresses—the people who need the representation and need their voices be amplified—that get a direct line with our office.” 

In the Aug. 11 primary, voters from Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District will decide if they want Ilhan to be their voice in Washington.

Ibrahim Hirsi is a reporter at Sahan Journal, where he covers immigrant communities and the politics and policies that affect them. He was previously a staff writer for MinnPost and MPR News. Ibrahim got...