Late Sunday afternoon, the massive crowd outside JFK Airport’s Terminal 4 that had cheered a federal judge’s decision the night before to suspend President Donald Trump’s sweeping immigration restrictions had dwindled. But the number of volunteer lawyers inside had ballooned, as untold scores of people — some of them lawful permanent residents of the United States — remained in limbo, trapped at JFK and in airports across the globe because they happened to be traveling to America from one of seven Muslim-majority countries that Trump considers “sources of terror.” And while Trump and his surrogates issued defiant statements defending their actions, tens of thousands gathered in downtown Manhattan to protest.
The volunteer attorneys who had turned the City Diner in Terminal 4 into a legal clinic were unable to see or speak to the people they were attempting to help until after their release.
“We don’t know what’s going on, and that’s what scary and difficult,” said Steve Golden, one of the handful of attorneys who had been there for hours helping to direct the legal efforts on Sunday afternoon. “We don’t have eyes inside, we hear one thing is happening one minute and another thing is happening another minute.”
As a result, was impossible to say exactly how many people had been detained at JFK by Customs and Border Protection agents, or how many others were being held up as they attempted to board planes to the United States, or how many had been deported before the judge issued the order.
Golden added that he knew of one woman who had been detained at JFK who had her visa cancelled after she signed a piece of paper. “After being back there for quite some time, she was told, ‘sign this, or consequences,’” Golden said. “I saw her visa and it had the word ‘cancelled’ stamped on it. That’s going to be a legal issue that’s going to be dealt with in due course.”
When we published this story, the most recent tally was roughly 50 total detainees at JFK, with around a dozen remaining in custody. Two people were deported, including Suha Abushamma, a 26-year-old Sudanese citizen traveling from Saudi Arabia, who is a resident at the Cleveland Clinic, according to Patch.
“The number constantly changes, as some people are released, others arrive,” Brooklyn Congressman Hakeem Jeffries told reporters inside the terminal. “An individual is detained, they get released, they come out, they’re reunited with their family, I go back in and have a conversation with the Customs officials, they tell me that additional individuals have just arrived who are being detained.”
Jeffries said that one of the people held and released on Sunday was the mother of an active duty member of the armed forces who was traveling from Iraq. “Although her paperwork had been approved overseas…since she was a newly arriving immigrant, it was held up.”
At least Customs officials agreed to speak to Jeffries — at Dulles airport they have declined to meet members of Congress in person. Customs officials at Dulles were also refusing to allow detainees to see lawyers, in a direct contravention of another federal court ruling made against the Trump administration last night. The ongoing refusal of agency personnel to comply with a direct court order turned the conflict into a full-blown constitutional crisis.
“What we’re seeing this weekend is a pretty ad-hoc, chaotic response from Customs and Border Protection,” said Betsy Fisher, an attorney and policy director at The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), an organization which helps refugees secure legal assistance. “Some locations are releasing detainees, others are not. We put out a call for attorneys to go to airports and roll their sleeves up but we’re still waiting on more clarity on the scope on the executive order.”
According to IRAP, as of four this afternoon, six refugees were being detained at JFK, along with the other detainees who aren’t refugees, but those with visas or green cards trying to re-enter the country.
“Seeing a ban of this scope that impacts thousands of refugees, thousands of people who are at risk in their country because they work for the U.S. military, that for us is unprecedented,” Fisher said. “Our country is turning its backs on so many people that need a permanent place where they can live in safety.”
On Sunday morning, a senior White House official said that the judge’s stay “does not undercut the President’s executive order,” and Trump himself released a statement hours later attacking the coverage of the backlash and anger the order created: “America has always been the land of the free and home of the brave. We will keep it free and keep it safe, as the media knows, but refuses to say.”
But just after 5 p.m., John F. Kelly, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, insisted that green card holders and other lawful permanent residents would not be impacted by the executive order. That statement ran counter to the actual language of the executive order, as well as to its initial implementation.
“Donald Trump is completely out of control,” Jeffries told reporters. “It’s not clear what [Trump’s] intended outcome is because I’m not sure that the White House knows what they’re doing. What is clear is that the Trump administration has visited upon the American people a level of chaos and carnage that has never been seen before in the first week of an administration.”
Tens of thousands of people filled Battery Park for a protest organized by many of the same groups who had drawn thousands to JFK on short notice the day before. Billed as the No Ban No Wall protest, the permitted event featured a speakers roster heavy with elected officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey,
Schumer gave a strident speech decrying Trump’s recent executive orders. “They’re bad for America, they’re bad for humanity, they’re bad for our national security, and they are against everything that is American.” Schumer bellowed. The senator said he had spoken Sunday with Trump’s Director of Homeland Security, John Kelly. “I have told him in no uncertain terms that he has a moral obligation to go to the president and tell him to rescind these orders.”
Mentioning Kelly may have reminded some in the crowd, however, that Schumer led his Democratic colleagues in voting to approve Kelly. As the senator wound down his speech, he was nearly drowned out in some parts of the crowd by a chant of “Vote down his nominees!”
Linda Sarsour, the director of the Arab American Association of New York, picked up the theme of appointee obstruction, warning elected officials that they must take a hard line against Trump’s Attorney General nominee or face the consequences. “Any member of the senate or congress who votes for Jeff Sessions is not gonna have a seat in 2018,” she promised.
After several hours of speeches, the massive crowd slowly unspooled out of Battery Park, filling the streets of Lower Manhattan as it stretched north, marching to Foley Square. As dusk fell, much of the crowd dispersed, but some heeded the call of organizers who asked them to return to JFK to continue to pressure customs officials for the release of detainees.
With additional reporting by Nick Pinto and Max Rivlin-Nadler.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 29, 2017