Airports becoming legal war rooms after Trump’s immigration order

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The Central Diner at John F. Kennedy International Airport on January 30, 2017. (Avi Asher-Schapiro/Tribune Media)

The Central Diner restaurant in the arrivals hall of New York’s John F. Kennedy (JFK) Airport resembled a law office on Monday morning: dozens of lawyers and translators worked the phones and inhaled Dunkin Donuts coffee while portable printers spat out documents.

Theirs was just one of nearly a dozen such makeshift legal war rooms that immigration attorneys set up at airports across the country beginning on Friday evening, when President Donald Trump issued an executive order halting the United States refugee program, and temporarily barring travelers with valid visas from seven Muslim majority countries from entering the U.S.

Trump’s order caused mass confusion on Friday. The text didn’t originally specify how the ban would be applied to the wide range of visas—green cards for legal permanent residents, students visas, fiancée visas, or temporary work permits—that various arriving travelers might have.

“There was total confusion about who this even applied to,” said Liz Budnitz, an immigration lawyer from Brooklyn.

Within hours, though, all visa holder were being detained upon arrival at U.S. airports. At JFK, 44 travelers were stopped, including Hameed Khalid Darweesh, an Iraqi who worked as a translator for the U.S. military.

Budnitz arrived at JFK 6 a.m. Monday to volunteer with International Refugee Assistance Project, one of the many immigrant rights organizations recruiting lawyers to assist travelers impacted by the ban. She’s been manning a hotline for families of travelers who worry their loved ones may be barred from entering country.  

Since Friday evening, more than 600 volunteer attorneys like Budnitz have cycled through JFK alone, trying to help travelers make sense of Trump’s constantly evolving new immigration policy.

“It’s been all hands on deck,” Budnitz said. “Some people have been here for 36 hours non-stop.”

On Saturday morning, crowds of demonstrators against the visa rules began to mass at major international hubs—including at JFK, Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C., Los Angeles International Airport, San Francisco International Airport, and Chicago O’Hare International Airport— demanding that those detained be released. Darweesh, the interpreter who’d flown into JFK on Friday, was eventually let go on Saturday after two members of Congress from New York City, Democratic Reps. Nydia Velazquez and Jerrodl Nadler, came to JFK and personally escorted him out of the airport.

On Saturday night, Trump’s executive order was dealt its first legal blow: the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) convinced U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly in New York to temporarily order a halt in pending deportations. Courts in Massachusetts, Virginia and California issued similar rulings over the weekend.

After the court’s ruling in New York, 42 different travelers, including Syrian refugees and Iranian students and Iraqi students, were released from JFK. Two travelers— an Iranian and a Sudanese passport holder—were, however, deported before the court order went into effect.

But even after the courts began to weigh in, chaos continued to reign at many airports. Democratic lawmakers and immigration attorneys accused immigration officials of ignoring the court orders and of enforcing deportations on an ad-hoc basis.

“Rogue customs and Border Patrol agents continue to try to get people onto planes,” Becca Heller, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, said on Sunday. “A lot of people have been handcuffed, a lot of people who don’t speak English are being coerced into taking involuntary departures.”

Reportedly, at least some detainees were pressured by Customs and Border Patrol officials into ceding their legally-acquired permanent residency status, threatened with a permanent ban from ever even traveling to the U.S.

On Monday, Democratic Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth called for a formal investigation into how DHS and Customs officials implemented the ban.

The order exposed fault lines in the Administration’s strategy. Behind the scenes, Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon had reportedly pushed back against Homeland Security officials who wanted to exempt green card holders from the order; newly-installed Homeland Security chief John Kelly rescinded that part of the order on Sunday. Newly-installed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is reportedly compiling a list of names of Iraqi interpreters who assisted U.S. troops to be exempted from the blanket ban.

After a weekend of unrest, on Monday a coalition of immigrants rights groups, led by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a massive lawsuit to dismantle the ban, on behalf of  20 plaintiffs who’d been impacted. The suit names President Trump, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, the State Department, and the Director of National Intelligence, and accuses them of religions discrimination.  

Our First Amendment is under attack. We, as attorneys, are foot soldiers of the American Constitution and took an oath to protect all from being targeted by the government because of their faith,” Shereef Akeel, an attorney who is co-counsel on the lawsuit, said in a press release.

Meanwhile, at JFK on Monday, Camille Mackler of the New York Immigration Coalition, was still struggling to get clear information from officials about travelers landing at the airport. On Monday morning, the Coalition received word from New Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office that a Yemeni man with a green card was set to arrive at JFK Monday afternoon—and that his family in New York was worried he would be stopped.  Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials would speak with immigration attorneys about the case.

“In the past, we’ve always had open communications with DHS and CBP,” Mackler told reporters at JFK. Since Trump took office, she said, things have changed: “This administration is doing things very differently.”

Meanwhile, “Yasser,” 21, and his brother “Hamdi,” 15, who didn’t want their real names used, were waiting at JFK’s Terminal 4 late on Monday afternoon for their father, an American citizen, and their uncle, a legal permanent resident of the U.S., to hopefully clear customs. Their flight from Yemen via Dubai arrived at 1:45 pm, but the brothers have yet to hear from their family members.

“We are freaked out,” said Yasser, a student at City Tech. “My dad’s an American citizen, but they always look for something.”

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