In New York City, immigrants from Yemen own thousands of corner stores that the city’s millions rely on for coffee, sandwiches, beer, and emergency tampons. But on Thursday, between noon and 8 p.m., New Yorkers found many of the bodegas’ doors locked—with signs in the window explaining that they’d closed “in support of our family, friends, and loved ones who are stranded at U.S. airports and overseas.” Yemeni, of course, is one of the seven nationalities that President Donald Trump has banned from coming to America. The man who gives my kids lollypops every time we stop into his shop for juice boxes or toilet paper recently learned that his own children, whose immigration interviews were supposed to be next week, will be stuck in Djibouti indefinitely. There are countless others like him.
The bodega owners’ rally in downtown Brooklyn’s civic center was supposed to start at 5:15 p.m., but well before 4 p.m., the plaza was packed with thousands of Yemenis waving American flags and holding signs with messages like, “Dear President, Immigrants Made America Great & They Will Make America Great Again.” No one I spoke to had ever seen the Yemeni community take such a public stand before. Had these people been white, they might have been Trump supporters: A great many of them were male, middle-aged small-business owners. They’d played by the rules in this country and were stunned to find the rules abruptly and radically changed.
“This is America, we never ever dreamed this day will ever happen!” exclaimed a retiree named Saleh, who said one of his children works in the police department and another in the fire department. “I’ve been here 50 years in America! Of course it affects my feeling inside me! It hurts! This is America!”
Nabil Nasher, a Manhattan deli owner, stood with his 10-year-old daughter, Samaa. She wore a sparkly pink hat over her hijab and held a hand-drawn sign saying “Muslims Can Be American,” decorated with little stars and a flag. Nasher left two older children behind in Yemen when he came to America nearly a decade ago, and has been working to get their papers ever since. He thought he was close, but now has no idea. “This is United States, mother of freedom in the world!” said Nasher. “Trump, he wants to be like some dictator in the Middle East. It’s not right, it’s the United States! What I hear from him is like what I hear from the president of Yemen for 33 years!”
A man named Salah Hagan held his 6-year-old daughter Malak, who is blind as a result of cancer. They are citizens, but Hagan’s wife only has a green card, and the family is frightened that she could be deported. “If they just think you’re doing something, they kick you out,” he said. They know the government now says the ban on Yemeni citizens doesn’t apply to green-card holders, but the rollout of the executive order was so abrupt and arbitrary that they fear the rules could revert any day. “They say something, then they turn around and change it,” he says.
This pestilential presidency is less than two weeks old, and it has already sown terror in the lives of immigrants who never imagined that in America, the whims of politicians could threaten their survival. The horror of it is stirring a counter-reaction from people who are as far as you can get from professional protesters. This is the second time in the past week that immigrants have gone on strike and forgone much-needed income to protest Trump; on Saturday, the 19,000–strong New York Taxi Workers Alliance called a one-hour work stoppage at JFK airport in response to Trump’s executive order. Activists have called a nationwide general strike for Feb. 17. If it succeeds, it will be because Trump has pushed some of the hardest working people in America into the resistance.