Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ Creates Chaos and Prompts Airport Protests, Free Legal Work and Faith Community Condemnation

By Deepa Iyer Jan 30, 2017

The casualties of the Muslim and refugee ban President Donald Trump passed late Friday (January 27) afternoon include a 12-year-old girl with a family visa who could not fly from Yemen to California with her U.S. citizen father; an Iranian researcher who was barred from her flight to Boston where she was set to begin a postdoctoral fellowship; and a Syrian Christian family that waited 15 years to receive visas and reunite with relatives in Philadelphia.

These are but three of the countless stories that have emerged since Trump’s executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry” went into effect. The order prevents people with valid visas as well as those with green cards or legal permanent status from entering the United States for 90 days if they are nationals of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—all countries with large Muslim populations. According to a Pro Publica report, this single provision could affect hundreds of thousands of people. Almost 500,000 people from the seven countries on the ban list received green cards over the past decade. The Wall Street Journal reports that more than 17,000 people from the seven countries were enrolled as international college students in the 2015-2016 academic year. 

The order also suspends the entire refugee admissions program for 120 days, indefinitely halts the intake of Syrian refugees who are already heavily vetted by multiple federal agencies over an 18- to 24-month period, and cuts the number of people receiving refugee status this year from 110,000 to 50,000. When refugee applications are considered again, religious minorities such as Christians in predominantly Muslim countries will take precedence despite the fact that in 2016, the United States accepted Christian and Muslim refugees in almost equal numbers.

“We have fathers and mothers who have been separated from their children for years. Many have waited years and spent thousands of dollars to reunite with loved ones," says Mohamed Shukri, a Somali refugee who heads up the New American Development Center in Nashville. "The one thing that keeps many refugees going is that hope of reunion. Now, that hope is replaced by stress and uncertainty.”  

The Trump administration has responded to critics of the visa ban by claiming that they are following in the footsteps of the Obama administration which had placed limited travel restrictions for certain people visiting the seven countries included in the ban. But many point out that the executive order’s ban list does not include nations where Trump has had business interests such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Lebanon. The hijackers in the 9/11 terrorist attack cited in the order were from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon.

#NoWallNoBan: The Resistance

Within hours of the executive order announcement, community advocates and faith leaders sharply criticized it as a “Muslim ban” for discriminating against people on the basis of national origin and faith. “Abandoning refugees means abandoning American humanitarian leadership,” said Betsy Fisher of the International Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center in a press statement.

Chaos abounded at airports around the nation. Many travelers returning to the United States from the seven countries on the ban list found themselves being interrogated and detained by Customs and Border Protection officers. Lawyers, many volunteers, immediately gathered at airports to submit habeas petitions on behalf of individuals in custody. Federal courts in New York, Virginia, Washington, California and Massachusetts ordered stays of deportations for individuals with valid visas.  

Of particular note is the decision by a federal judge in Brooklyn who ruled that two Iraqi detainees, a former U.S. Army interpreter and a former contractor, could not be deported. The judge, Ann M. Donnelly, also prevented the government from deporting people being held with valid visas or refugee status around the country. The ruling, delivered on Saturday (January 28) evening, does not obligate the government to release people in detention, but it dealt a strong and early blow to the Trump administration. On Sunday, homeland security secretary John Kelly indicated that the entry of legal permanent residents or green card holders was in "the national interest." But the actual implementation of DHS policies and the stays of deportation was in disarray at various airports. While DHS claimed in a statement released on Sunday (January 29) that its officers “…are and will remain in compliance with judicial orders,” The Guardian reports that Customs and Border Patrol agents have not been uniformly complying with court orders.

Throughout the weekend, protest marches and gatherings at airports and in cities amplified public resistance to the executive order. Holding signs that read "No Wall, No Ban," some protesters chanted “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here”; and “From Palestine to Mexico, all the borders got to go.”  In solidarity, New York City cab drivers, many of whom are immigrants themselves, suspended service at John F. Kennedy Airport for an hour. “Our19,000-member-strong union stands firmly opposed to the Muslim ban,” stated the New York Taxi Workers Alliance in a statement released on social media. Executives in the tech sector, including the heads of Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, have also registered their opposition.

On the political end, Democratic attorneys general in 15 states including California, Maryland and Pennsylvania voiced their opposition to the executive order according to a Reuters report. GOP Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham were the most outspoken critics in Republican leadership, but the majority of GOP lawmakers have remained silent. In the coming week, it is safe to expect the release of legislative proposals like the one introduced by Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) attempting to stop the executive order as well as calls to investigate the response by the Customs and Border Protection.

What’s Ahead

Lawyers are still sorting out the legal landscape. “Things are happening so fast and the legal landscape is shifting on you every two hours,” says Elica Vafaie, staff attorney at Advancing Justice—Asian Law Caucus who worked with Iranian passengers at San Francisco International Airport over the past two days. Her organization and others are planning to conduct Know Your Rights sessions for community members about the impact of the executive order in coming weeks.

Advocates like Vafaie are also aware that this is just the first phase of the executive order. After the 90- and 120-day periods expire, it is possible that the Trump administration may make permanent the ban on issuing visas to individuals from certain countries. It is also possible that the administration will expand the list of countries covered by the ban if certain information-sharing requirements are not met by foreign nations. In addition, advocates are raising the alarm about language in the executive order that imposes a veritable "values test" to determine whether individuals seeking entry into the United States have the right set of beliefs on social issues to be part of the American mosaic. Stay tuned.