New York

JFK Post-Muslim Ban: Travelers Face Interrogations About Trump and ISIS

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Five days after President Donald Trump signed an order restricting travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, upending countless lives and revoking at least 100,000 visas in the process, the chaos of the first 48 hours has given way to a new phase of grinding delays and invasive questioning by immigration authorities.

According to volunteer attorneys at JFK Airport and elsewhere across the country, travelers from targeted countries who have valid legal status — and in some cases, travelers from Muslim-majority countries not covered by the formal ban — have been subjected to lengthy delays at ports of entry, interrogated about their religious beliefs, and even questioned about their support for the Trump administration.

“We met with a person this morning who was asked what his opinion of the administration was, what his opinion of ISIS was, what his religious beliefs were,” Camille Mackler, director of legal initiatives at the New York Immigration Coalition, and lead coordinator at NoBanJFK, as the volunteer attorney group calls itself, told the Voice on Friday. “We’ve been hearing that a lot, both at JFK and at land crossings in Buffalo.”

Tahanie Aboushi, another one of the attorneys volunteering at JFK, tells us that “The executive order has morphed since it was issued.” Initially, she explains, travelers with dual citizenship and even permanent residency – green card holders — were being barred from entry. Federal court rulings in Brooklyn and elsewhere mostly ended that practice before the weekend was out. But even after U.S. authorities stopped deporting legal residents, airlines were routinely preventing passengers with legal status from boarding flights overseas. Now, Aboushi says, as the rules have been codified, “the playing field is starting to formulate. So things have calmed down in the sense that there’s no more surprise.”

That doesn’t mean that the onerous intake process is any more transparent.

The attorneys at JFK say travelers are routinely being held for long periods in secondary questioning, whether they hail from countries on the banned list or not. Worried families find themselves sitting in the arrivals section for hours at a time, cut off from contact with loved ones in secondary inspection. Travelers report that Customs and Border Protection [CBP] officers have been “courteous” even as they pressed with inappropriate questions, Mackler said, and seem to be “doing as they’ve been instructed.”

A group of around 20 volunteer lawyers was still camped out at the Central Diner café at JFK Airport’s Terminal 4 on Wednesday, offering free assistance to travelers facing a nebulous tangle of new restrictions.

Cristina Manzano, a law school graduate volunteering at the airport, said some of the stories they hear raise questions about whether extra scrutiny is being applied even to travelers from countries not officially singled out. One of the people Manzano counseled was an American citizen of Pakistani descent traveling from that country — not one of the nations on the banned list — who spent three and a half hours in detention for no clear reason.

“It’s alarming to hear that a U.S. citizen traveling from a country that’s not on that list would have any sort of trouble getting into the United States,” Manzano says. “It’s hard not to feel like the only reason is because he was coming from a Muslim country.”

People held in detention don’t have access to attorneys, Manzano said, and CBP does not release information about when or how long a passenger is being held. “It’s kind of like a black box back there,” Manzano says. The only way to find out about the conditions travelers are experiencing is after they’re released, or from the reports of family members. In the case of the man travelling from Pakistan, Manzano says, they were only notified of his detention after the rest of his family was sent out, leaving him behind.

When travelers are finally released, attorneys tell the Voice, they sometimes report being asked bizarre questions; about their religious views, and even about their views on the Trump administration.

Invasive questioning of the type reported by lawyers at NoBanJFK doesn’t seem to be confined just to New York facilities. Hassan Shibly, executive director of the Council for American Islamic Relations in Florida, said they’ve been hearing similar stories for weeks, even before Trump’s ban went into effect. Some travelers have reported being questioned about their support for the Iraq War, or flagged because they’ve made critical posts on social media about the Trump administration.

He said his group had confirmed cases of travelers being denied entry because they were reading a Quran, or using iPray, a mobile phone app that offers prayer reminders and prompts. It’s forced him into a difficult bind.

“As a civil rights attorney you really fight for freedom of speech, and you never want to encourage people to self-censor. Especially when it comes to expressing their faith or expressing their political views,” Shibly says. “I think the hallmark of American democracy is expressing dissent to those in authority.”

But until the current legal mess is “cleaned up,” he continues, “I think the safest thing for non-citizens is to be extremely careful with what they put on social media and on their cell phones before they come to the U.S.”

According to Danielle Rizzo, senior counsel at Harris Beach and chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s national liaison committee with CBP, invasive questions about political or religious beliefs are unusual, but may not be illegal. Immigration authorities have wide latitude to interrogate travelers, and can refuse to admit them for a broad range of reasons.

In the past, such invasive questioning generally would have been triggered by some other factor, Rizzo says, like extensive travel to parts of the world deemed to be linked to terrorist activity. But regardless of the reason, courts have generally sided with the authorities. “There is a long history of upholding the government’s rights, and suspending people’s civil liberties, when they’re at an international border crossing,” Rizzo says.

While reports like those at JFK are widespread and consistent, official information remains scant. The New York Civil Liberties Union announced on Wednesday that they filed freedom of information requests with CBP, aiming to find out how Trump’s ban is being interpreted, and how passengers are being questioned under the new regime. It’s part of a wider effort by fifty ACLU affiliates across the country.

“The Trump administration has not said how many refugees, visa holders, and legal permanent residents have been affected by its ban,” the organization said in a press release.

Meanwhile, at NoBanJFK, what began as an ad hoc effort has started to take on the appearance of an institutional operation. There’s a check-in station for volunteers — it’s come to be called the “concierge” — to register and receive their assignments. Carefully coordinated shifts ensure there are attorneys and translators on duty at all hours. A sign near the perimeter of the space exhorts newcomers to sign on to the group’s Slack, an instant-messaging software more commonly found at media and tech companies.

At the arrival gate, a few volunteers leaned over a metal railing, holding signs for travelers. “Have you seen anyone being detained?” Behind hand-lettered signs, in Arabic and English, reading “free legal help,” the group of attorneys, translators and activists tapped at their laptop keyboards.

The group says they’ve assisted more than 134 families so far, and more than 1,000 attorneys have volunteered their time. And with virtually no official information from authorities, the job at JFK has become as much a documentary effort as a legal one. It’s not exactly scientific; the group scans the faces of people in the waiting area, and approaches anyone who looks anxious. As often as not, they’re waiting on a family member caught up in a lengthy interrogation, somewhere in the bowels of the airport. Passengers who are willing are then interviewed by volunteers about their experience. The narratives are recorded and entered into a database, with the hope of establishing documented patterns of treatment.

As we reported on Wednesday, the private company that controls Terminal 4, JFK International Air Terminals, or JFKIAT, had been enforcing inconsistent and potentially unconstitutional controls on press activities within the terminal. As of Wednesday, reporters were still being prevented from filming inside the terminal.