Experts debate Trump’s immigration stance ahead of UM conference

Shahid Haque-Hausrath (left) and University of Montana constitutional law professor Anthony Johnstone talk to listeners at KGVO Newstalk radio on Wednesday, ahead of the three-day International Conference on Central and Southwest Asia at UM. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

When President Donald Trump issued his travel ban in February, the ensuing media coverage fell on immigrants trapped at the nation’s international airports, and the high drama that unfolded in a Washington court.

When the dust settled, the president’s executive order was deemed unconstitutional and overturned, forcing the administration back to the drawing board.

But the volley of activity also left a constitutional law expert at the University of Montana and a well-known state immigration attorney scrambling to understand Trump’s fiery rhetoric, and what it means for their clients and their field of work.

“It scared people who had no objective reason to be afraid – people from countries not even affected by the travel ban,” said Shahid Haque-Hausrath, an immigration attorney at the Border Crossing Law Firm, based in Helena. “We missed that particular controversy. But we do have visitors from these countries who are banned.”

Haque-Hausrath joined UM constitutional law professor Anthony Johnstone at KGVO Newstalk radio on Wednesday morning, where they took a deep dive into the topic of immigration and constitutional law.

Joined by UM history professor Mehrdad Kia and Bob Seidenschwarz of the Montana World Affairs Council, the morning banter served as an official opening for the 15th annual International Conference on Central and Southwest Asia, which plays out at UM over the next three days.

“When the travel ban was first implemented, there were protests at airports around the country,” Haque-Hausrath said. “We didn’t see that quite as much here because we don’t really have that many international airports. The people caught up in this travel ban were already on an airplane when the executive order was issued.”

Those affected in Montana included a handful of university students and scholars. Nationally, the president’s actions left more than 17,000 students from seven banned countries in a state of limbo. At UM, the figures included 11 students and 1 visiting scholar from Iran.

Kia, who serves as the director of the Central and Southwest Asia Studies Center at UM, said the wife of a visiting UM scholar had left for Iran to care for an ailing mother when she was caught up in Trump’s travel ban.

“She was reassured she could come back because she had an immigrant visa,” Kia said. “But when she went back, she was told that because of the ban she could not return. These kind of headaches were created.”

Like other legal experts, Johnstone also watched the drama created by the president’s travel ban play out over a number of weeks. He analyzed the order and the following court rulings from a constitutional perspective.

By issuing his order on January 27, Trump claimed his Article 2 executive powers in an attempt to impose a 90-day suspension of entry for individuals from seven Muslim majority nations, and a complete ban on refugee admissions from Syria, Johnstone said.

Trump also relied upon an act passed by Congress that enables the president to identify a class of aliens deemed to be detrimental to the interest of the U.S. The state of Washington challenged the order and won. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision.

“They focused on several different issues under the law, but probably that first order’s biggest problems were its impacts on lawful permanent residents, as well as visa holders who had already been given permission and had constitutional rights under American law,” Johnstone said.

UM history professor Mehrdad Kia, who serves as the director of the Central and Southwest Asian Studies Center, said the wife of a visiting UM scholar was caught up in Trump’s recent travel ban. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Johnstone described constitutional law as a two-step dance. The federal government must claim both a legal power to carry out an act while also abiding by one’s constitutional rights. The president’s authority to issue the travel ban – as well as his revised attempt – remains in question, and it’s not a new debate.

Johnstone said Congress has been debating the issue since 1798 and the Alien Friends and Enemies Act. Back then, he said, John Adams took on his political enemies by trying to throw them out of the country. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson both found Adam’s actions unconstitutional.

That debate continues today, he said.

“These issues are in our courts and these constitutional claims are still being litigated,” Johnstone said. “What I hope to provide is some of what (Haque-Hausrath) and his clients, and what the rest of us in Montana, might expect as these debates play out under our Constitution.”

Haque-Hausrath and Johnstone will deliver a keynote presentation Wednesday night as the International Conference on Central and Southwest Asia kicks off at UM. The discussion, “Minority Groups, Religious Communities and Immigration in the Trump Era” starts at 7 p.m. in the University Center theater.

Haque-Hausrath said questions remain whether Trump’s initial travel ban was hastily unveiled or a deliberate salvo to change the national dialogue surrounding immigration.

“There are questions on whether this was a strategic decision by Trump to instill fear and shake things up and make everyone realize the administration was taking a different course, or whether it was an actual oversight,” Haque-Hausrath said. “Nobody really knows for sure, but there have been plenty of reasons to think it was actually deliberate.”

Contract reporter Martin Kidston at