Federal agents at Los Angeles International Airport continued to detain travelers, mostly from Iran, into Sunday evening in the wake of President Donald Trump's executive order that bans refugees and people from seven countries from entering the US. Early Sunday morning, a federal judge in Boston suspended parts of the order for seven days, allowing refugees and immigrants who already have valid travel documents to enter the US in the short term.
Attorneys say the detentions violate that court order, which prohibits federal agents from holding and conducting extra security screenings on people with valid green cards or visas based on the executive order Trump signed Friday evening.
Joanne Lin, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU, says the civil rights group is considering its next steps. "We've received many reports of potential violations of the court orders. We're looking into those, and whether or not people are going to have to sue the federal government to enforce the court orders," Lin says.
A Virginia court mandated that federal agents allow people being questioned and detained have access to lawyers. The ACLU says they are receiving many reports of this being denied. At Dulles airport in Washington, DC, on Sunday, four members of Congress asked federal agents to comply with the court order, but were told that those held by immigration were not technically "detained."
The executive order gave federal agencies broad power to detain or deny entry to anyone arriving as a refugee from any country or as an immigrant of any kind from the so-called “countries of concern,” Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told Meet the Press on Sunday that legal permanent residents would not be subject to the ban, but that border agents still have “discretionary authority” to detain people traveling from these countries “when they suspect they’re up to no good.”
Adam Astan, a Los Angeles County public defender, volunteered at LAX by assisting families of detained travelers on Sunday. “I’m advising them not to sign any forms [that would revoke their visa], and telling them to inform authorities that ‘you have an immigration attorney outside waiting for you and you want to speak to that attorney,’” he said.
As of late Sunday night, officials at LAX had reportedly released most green card holders, after putting them through up to 24 hours of detention and interrogation, according to lawyers at the airport. Those with valid visas continued to be questioned and green card holders arriving today could also be detained. A federal judge in Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon ordered that the government bring back a man from Iran with valid travel documents whom they deported on Saturday.
The Customs and Border Patrol public affairs officer at LAX did not answer the phone after repeated calls, and has not yet responded to email inquiries. A representative of CBP in Washington, DC, declined to comment — she said they were still figuring out how to handle media inquiries. She instead pointed PRI to statements made by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Early Sunday morning, the federal agency said it would comply with judges’ rulings, but also continue to follow the executive order, which includes not issuing new travel documents to refugees or foreign nationals from designated countries.
The statement said travelers who were questioned and detained were “inconvenienced while enhanced security measures were implemented.” DHS Secretary John Kelly also issued a short statement affirming that allowing the entry of legal permanent residents is “in the national interest.”
Sarah Fatemi, a 24-year-old graduate student of Iranian descent, first arrived at LAX Saturday to help translate for families and passengers who had been detained for long hours without food. A Turkish Airlines flight landed at 4 p.m. with many Iranian passengers.
“A lot of people were exhausted, they were crying, they were running into each other’s arms,” she said. “There was a steady stream of about two at a time coming out into arrivals. We were handing out food, we would give them intake forms to fill out and give to an attorney in case they’d been harassed or given a very difficult time.” She said she helped an Armenian Iranian call the airlines when a friend didn’t appear for more than nine hours after their flight landed.
Fatemi came back to LAX on Sunday to offer more assistance. “If they need anything from me, I’ve got Oreos, I’ve got water, I’ve got my Farsi skills.” By Sunday, she had substantial backup, though — Farsi-speakers with nametags roamed the arrivals area and greeted passengers.
Outside the arrivals and departures area at the international terminal, chanting protesters with large signs filled the entire curb. Upstairs, near the airline check-in counters, hundreds of protesters held a mass sit-in. Thousands of protesters filled LAX on Sunday, and the sizeable groups blocked all vehicle traffic late into the evening.
Throughout the weekend, the international terminal’s arrival hall brimmed with volunteer attorneys, many who are Iranian American. Farsi-speaking student translators, and groups of Persian friends and family members patiently awaited planes full of travelers. Translators lined the arrivals hall with colorful signs in Farsi directing family members of detained passengers to immigration lawyers. Clusters of cousins cheered up worried family members waiting for spouses or parents.
When Iranian Americans in Southern California — about 500,000 people, the largest concentration in the US — got word that travelers from Iran, including green card holders, were being detained and deported, they mobilized quickly.
Many passengers had boarded flights hours before the executive order was signed, but landed in Los Angeles afterwards. For Iranian American college student Kamryn Taghizadeh, this meant an agonizing wait for her grandfather, who has a green card, at LAX on Saturday night. She clutched a sign with three simple words: “Free My Grandpa.”
Customs and Border Protection detained her grandfather, who is 80, for more than nine hours after a long flight from Istanbul. Before that, he had traveled five hours by car to Tehran, then by air to Istanbul, before flying to Los Angeles.
“He doesn’t speak any English, so they were trying to interrogate him, but he couldn’t reply,” Taghizadeh said. “They were asking them questions over and over, even though he couldn’t answer because of the language barrier. We had no contact with him either, because his cell phone doesn’t work in America. It was very hard on him, he was just so tired.”
When he finally came out at 1:45 a.m. in the morning, she rushed toward him and gave him a big hug. “I just broke down. It was so heartbreaking,” she said.
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On Sunday, Taghizadeh went back to LAX to support other detainees. “It’s discrimination towards my people when they haven’t done anything,” she said. “There have been no Iranian terrorists in the US.”
This ban will now affect her aunt and her family, who were close to being issued green cards to live in the US. “They had been waiting to move here for 15 years. Now that can’t happen,” she said.
The implementation of this executive order has put the US State Department in disarray, according to sources in the the agency who spoke out despite the Trump administration’s media gag. Visa and green card processing abroad has been ordered to stop.
Her group has joined the American Civil Liberties Union in a class action lawsuit on behalf of several Iranian Americans. Her organization is also coordinating more protests with other Iranian American groups. “We believe best way to react to this is to put pressure and hold Trump accountable for his actions,” she said.
“Iranian Americans have always been political, but we haven’t seen a lot of grassroots movements on the ground,” Rastegari said. “Everyone is scrambling to do what they can. It hits home for everybody.”
“Iranians comprise of the most successful people in this country. We are your doctors, we are your lawyers, we are your engineers, we are your service members in the military. For Mr. Trump to put an entire ban on a community like that is un-American and goes against every value that we have,” Rastegari said.
As the chants of protesters grew louder outside, Astan, the public defender, instructed fellow lawyers on how they could help.
“If you see people waiting for a family member, start speaking to them in Farsi. “If they are waiting longer than two to three hours, they have to fill out an intake form,” he told a few young law students.
Astan, who came to the US from Iran as a young child, said, “The families I’m speaking to, they’re really appreciative. I think they’re scared. It helps to have people of their own culture speaking their own language.”
“They’re also really hopeful. Something that’s true about Iranian people is that they’re pretty resilient people. They’ve lived through one of the worst regimes in the world. So, a lot of us know what it’s like to live in an undemocratic society.”
The prominent Iranian American community in Los Angeles has long been well-connected, Astan said, especially to government officials in California. “We’re able to protect ourselves, so this is a shock. People are surprised it’s happened so fast. It reminds all of us that as much as we think we’re excluded from this hate, we’re really not. We still come from a Muslim country and no one’s excluded. Iranians are definitely not excluded.”
Though many families were reunited after hours of waiting, many still felt pangs of worry.
A green card holder who was detained for five hours without food on Sunday finally made her way to arrivals, where her sister, who declined to give her name, nervously waited and checked her phone for texts. “I’ve lived in the US more than 30 years, and I’m a naturalized US citizen,” the sister said after the long wait. “You don’t expect this from the US, of all the places in the world. It’s just insane. Now, I’m freaking out. I don’t know if I leave the US, I can come back. It’s a police state.”
She talked to immigration lawyers gathered around her family and provided details of her sister’s detention. “We hope the information we give the lawyers can support the ACLU, so they can help everyone else,” she said.