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Columbia residents speak out against immigration restrictions

About three dozen people gathered in front of the State House Sunday to tell the world that as far as they’re concerned, Southern hospitality applies to Muslims and refugees too.

The demonstration in protest of immigration restrictions imposed by President Donald Trump, was organized by Debbie Billings. Billings said she was frustrated watching the news of the ban Saturday and made signs along with her husband and son, saying “Muslims welcome here” and “Refugees welcome here.” They put them up outside their Columbia home, but Sunday morning Billings had another idea.

“I got up this morning and said ‘Even if it’s just the three of us, we made some signs and we’re going to come out here and stand,” she said. “I just put it out on social media and crazy things happened. It’s kind of neat.”

The group ranged in age from children to seniors, and several races were represented, along with at least three religions. “I was born in South Carolina. I’m actually not a Muslim, but the color of my skin and my name make me a threat in some people’s eyes,” said Amir Gupta. “I’m lucky to live here, and I’m not going to let it stop being a free country.”

The crowd stood along Gervais Street at the Main Street intersection, chanting slogans like “Build bridges, not walls,” holding up signs and waving at cars.

The protest was peaceful, with the only opposition one man who walked by and told the protestors the ban and a wall along the border are needed for national security. He chatted briefly and civilly with some of those gathered, then left, declining a request for an interview.

“This is all symbolic, but symbolism matters. Statements matter,” Billings said. “Can you imagine packing your bags and going on a trip and not being allowed to come home? That’s just not who we are. It’s totally unacceptable.”

The opposition was not limited to Gervais Street. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham issued a statement Sunday opposing Trump’s order. University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin expressed their thoughts on social media.

“We value int’l students, faculty & staff and are committed to their safety and success regardless of religion, ethnicity or nat’l origin,” Pastides said via Twitter.

“The people of @columbiasc speak 90 languages & are from 200 nations & practice several faiths. We are diverse & it is a strength,” Benjamin said, also via Twitter. “Pray that @POTUS will change course.  Our Muslim citizens contribute greatly. This is wrong.”

Another protest, organized by the Refugee Task Force of the Carolina Peace Resource Center, is planned for Tuesday at 5 p.m. at the State House.

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