Activists and Attorneys Worked Non-Stop After First Muslim Ban Led to Detentions at JFK

Image courtesy of Luminary Traveler

On March 6th, President Trump signed a second Muslim ban executive order revising the ill-fated first ban on January 27th. The new executive order halts refugee resettlement and bars nationals of six Muslim-majority countries. Here’s what happened at one of the country’s busiest international airports after the first banned was signed.

From January 28th to February 4th, America’s airports became the scene of so much confusion and anger, protest and subservience. But for Dave Mammen and his friends at the Rutgers Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, two more emotions finally came, too: relief and joy.

That’s because on February 7th, after a nine-day wait, all eight members of the Khoja family stepped off a plane at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and embraced church members who’d been praying and hoping for their arrival.

“It was a pretty emotional moment for all of us,” Mammen, Rutgers’ church administrator, said. “I told them they could expect to see a large crowd waiting for them, but I don’t think they realized how many of us would be there. It was a rollercoaster of emotions.”

Suzanne and Mahmoud Khoja and their six children were overwhelmed and relieved as well, as a long journey had finally ended.

The Khojas are originally from Aleppo, Syria, the scene of so much suffering and destruction over the past five years. They moved to Istanbul, Turkey three years ago, and after months of work from Rutgers Church and Church World Service (CWS partners with adopting organizations like Rutgers to help re-settle refugees), they were due to arrive on January 30th.

However, President Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from seven nations, including Syria, was announced on January 27th.  Individuals on flights landing at JFK in New York City and other airports across the country were suddenly detained, questioned, and occasionally sent back to their country of origin.

It was pure chaos at JFK as protests broke out at this flagrant abuse of power, lawyers swarmed to Terminal 4 in order to provide legal counsel to those detained, and refugees from places like Syria, Iran and Sudan were suddenly told they were unwelcome.

But what was it like at JFK during those fateful days between Trump’s order and U.S. District Judge James Robart halting the ban on February 3rd? Long Island Wins asked those who were there.

According to Yasmine Farhang of Make the Road New York, government officials at JFK told her that approximately 100 – 300 people per day were being detained between January 27’s Executive Order from the White House, and the February 4 ruling from Judge Robart in Seattle temporarily halting the order. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials were not giving out exact numbers at the time, and so many reports reported different statistics on how many people were detained.

Chris Hennessy of the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) compiled data on the number of detainees at JFK. According to his records, they provided 246 families with assistance, comprised of people with citizenship from over 20 countries including the United States as well as all of the 7 countries directly affected by the travel ban except Somalia. At least 90 of the travelers they assisted were green card holders and at least 30 were US citizens. The confirmed number of released individuals is at 41, one individual was detained at JFK and two individuals were deported, the latter of which were of Sudanese and Iranian nationalities.

Camille Mackler, an attorney with NYIC, was at the forefront of the whirlwind at JFK that last weekend in January. She and other lawyers were able to speak to family members waiting for detainees, but not anyone in CBP control.

“We learned that most of them were being held in a waiting room, some were given actual meals, others just snacks from a vending machine despite waiting for many hours,” Mackler said about the condition detainees were held in. “I don’t know that it was anything extreme, it was described as like a DMV waiting room.”

Mackler described a chaotic scene at JFK on January 28-29 and the days after the executive order:

“Sometimes we were with a family for four hours and they didn’t know anything about their relative, and then all of a sudden the relative appears and they’re incredibly relieved,” Mackler said. “A lot of times it came down to if the detainee had a U.S. cell phone and could text and let their family know what was going on.”

Mackler said she and NYIC filed 21 habeus petitions after some detainees from the seven countries Trump had put into his executive order were held for over six hours, which are petitions used to bring a prisoner or other detainee before the court to determine if the person’s imprisonment or detention is lawful. She added that other attorneys worked around the clock to try to free some of the refugees being held.

“I know a lot more about airport management than I did three weeks ago,” Mackler said with a laugh. “We had a situation where so many [airport officials] were giving conflicting information, and so many of us were trying to make sense of it all.”

As often happens in crisis situations, strange bedfellows cropped up as many individuals just wanted to do what they could to help.

Adam Cohen, an attorney originally from Commack, who specializes in personal injury law, was motivated after Trump’s election to join a fledgling group called Lawyers for Good Government, a Facebook-started operation that now has more than 130,000 attorneys across the country.

Cohen said he spent much of his time at JFK that first weekend helping coordinate efforts to free detainees at other U.S. airports, trying to share information about what kind of conditions detainees were being kept in, whether they were allowed to speak to lawyers, and why legal green card holders were being held.

“You’ve got all these lawyers trying to help and you’ve got CBP people at the airport not really knowing what was going on,” Cohen said.

Cohen said three of his colleagues with Lawyers for Good Government were heavily involved in the much-publicized case of the four-month-old Iranian child who needed a heart transplant but was temporarily detained in Portland (though she has since been admitted into the country and had successful surgery).

Farhang reiterated that the community response to the President’s order was “incredible” and that resistance will be continually needed.

“We tried to make sure that not a single person who was being detained was denied the chance to get legal representation, and that should always be the case,” Farhang said.

“Generally speaking, with the immigration policies of the new administration, this is going to be a long fight and we really don’t know fully what to expect,” Mackler said. “We have to be ready for anything, at any moment, right now.”

On March 16th, the second Muslim ban executive order that President Trump signed will go into effect and we will wait and see how effectively this executive order is executed.

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