At Terminal Four of New York’s John F. Kennedy airport Saturday afternoon, hundreds of protesters chanted in the snow for hours, pushed out of the chaotic lobby by police. Inside the terminal, volunteer lawyers and immigrant advocates scoured the crowd, asking one family after another if they were waiting for a loved one or relative who had failed to appear. Deeper inside the airport’s bureaucratic bowels, 11 foreign travelers waited in the legal no-man’s-land of the Customs and Border Protection office.
They were separated from one another and detained for over 16 hours, according to the brief updates CBP provided immigrant rights groups, and had no access to lawyers. They’d been forbidden from using their electronic devices, legal advocates feared, even as their phones and social media accounts were searched for evidence of wrongdoing. Even their names remained largely unknown.
“We’re not getting any information on who they are,” said Murad Awawdeh, an activist with the New York Immigration coalition who was on the scene. “But we’re trying to continue the pressure here today to make sure these people get out. And we want to make sure that Donald Trump sees that people won’t stand for this. This is outrageous. How are we closing our borders to the most vulnerable people in the world?”
Witness day one of President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban.
Over at JFK’s terminal one, a 26-year-old man had spent most of the day trying, and failing, to speak with his aunt, a Yemeni citizen whose flight from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia had landed at 11:30 that morning. CBP had detained her upon arrival. Mohammed, who declined to give his last name, said that his aunt is 68 years old, and suffers from both diabetes and high blood pressure. She had traveled to the US to move in with her son, a citizen, and had a family visa.
Now, Mohammed says, CBP plans to deport her at 8pm Saturday night, and won’t let him see her, talk to her, or share information about her medical condition. She’s had no access to a lawyer, and Mohammed worries for her well-being.
“It’s insane,” Mohammed said. “She’s not coming here to do anything bad. She’s sick. We just wanted her to come live the American dream.”
She was just one of the unknown number of travelers subject to the sweeping, yet vaguely worded, executive order that institutes “extreme vetting” processes for refugees from seven Muslim countries. It bars refugees from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from entering the United States for the next 120 days. It also creates a 90-day ban on new visas for immigrants from those countries, and bans Syrian refugees indefinitely.
But while it purports to primarily impact newcomers, the first hours of its implementation revealed the executive order to be much broader than that. It impacts both “immigrants and nonimmigrants,” meaning it includes even green-card holders who have been living in the United States for decades, but who may currently be traveling abroad. According to the White House press pool report, one senior official confirmed that green-card holders who are currently outside the United States need a case-by-case waiver to return. The Wall Street Journal has also confirmed that even US citizens with dual citizenship in any of these countries will also be barred entry.
Overnight, reports from immigrants around the world began flowing in, according to Mana Yegani, a Houston-based lawyer who represents Iranian immigrants. She and other lawyers in her network began compiling them in a Google Doc created by the American Immigration Bar Association. There were reports from Amsterdam and Frankfurt, where airlines were refusing to board anyone with an Iranian passport on US-bound flights. In Istanbul, a family of nine, including eight visa holders and one green card holder, was escorted off their plane.
“Up until 8:30 pm people were coming through with visas and green cards, no problem,” Yegani says. But once the text of the executive order was released, she says, “We saw disaster occur.”
No Due Process
Reports of legal visa holders being detained sent shockwaves through civil liberty and immigrant rights groups alike. Saturday morning, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Iraqi refugees Hameed Khalid Darweesh and Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi, who were among the JFK detainees. It argues that because they and other asylum seekers are on US soil, the government is required under the Immigration and Nationality Act to at least grant them an asylum hearing.
“We don’t think there’s a legitimate argument that the executive order can override the asylum laws,” says Lee Gelernt, a lawyer with the ACLU. He acknowledges the situation may be different for people who are not currently in the United States.
The ACLU’s suit also does not address the constitutionality of the executive order itself. It would be rendered moot, in other words, if the Trump administration were to order all the current detainees released. But Gelernt says, “The ACLU is prepared to go to court to challenge the exec order more generally.” On Monday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations will also announce its own constitutional challenge against the order.
The nature of the immigration system makes this a difficult legal battle to fight, particularly for those already in CBP custody. “It’s all shrouded in secrecy. You’re detained for hours and questioned outside the presence of an attorney,” says Jackie Esposito, an immigration attorney and one of the JFK protest’s organizers. “It’s one of the major flaws of our immigration system that there’s no due process.”
“This is a system that has trafficked in a lack of transparency and human devastation,” says Daniel Altschuler, managing director of immigrant rights group Make the Road New York, who attended the JFK rally. “The actions of the president yesterday will only make that worse.”
The ACLU will focus on the executive order’s disproportionate impact on Muslims over Christians. The White House maintains this is different from the Muslim ban President Trump promised on the campaign trail, but in practice, it amounts to precisely that, Gelernt says. “It’s favoring one religion over another,” he says. “That’s antithetical to the basic principles of the constitution.”
It also runs counter to a 1965 law which states that “no person shall receive any preference or priority or be discriminated against in the issuance of an immigrant visa because of the person’s race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.”
Voices of Protest
Meanwhile, the full impact remains to be seen, but some prominent oppositional voices have responded quickly. Google CEO Sundar Pichai urged foreign employees to return to the US as soon as possible in a memo obtained by Bloomberg. “It’s painful to see the personal cost of this executive order on our colleagues,” Pichai wrote. An estimated 187 Google employees could be denied re-entry to the US. Apple CEO Tim Cook said in an email to employees that it is “not a policy we support.”
Others, including Reza Zadeh, a Stanford professor and CEO of the machine learning startup Matroid, took to Twitter to express concern over their own futures in this country.
Just paid for the health insurance of my American employees. As a Canadian-Iranian with an EB-1 Green Card, now not allowed into US. Weird.
— Reza Zadeh (@Reza_Zadeh) January 28, 2017
And while Republican politicians have remained largely silent, many Democrats have offered full-throated censure. “This is ill-conceived, misguided policy, and it undermines the collaboration we need to have with Muslim countries in fighting ISIL,” says New York Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez1, who was working to negotiate the release of detainees at JFK. “But it’s also arbitrary, with no clear guidelines, and it’s creating confusion for not only the families, but for the [customs] agents.”
Saturday marked the beginning of what will no doubt be a long battle over the constitutionality of the order and the civil rights of each individual who’s been refused entry. But as his fellow detainees waited inside, no doubt worried and wondering about their fates, Darweesh, the first refugee to be released, was steadfast in his belief that America is still welcome place for people like him.
“Thank you to the people who came to support me,” he said. “This is the soul of America, this is the land of freedom.”
Update: A federal judge for the Eastern District Court of New York issued a temporary stay on Trump’s executive order tonight, according to Dale Ho, Director of ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. The stay, which came in response to a habeas corpus petition filed by the ACLU, means that anyone already in custody in the US under the order cannot be deported.