Refugees and migrants holding valid visas who were en route to the United States on Friday evening have been detained at U.S. airports and restricted from the country as a result of President Trump's executive order banning their entry.
Lawyers for two Iraqi men detained at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, one of whom served the U.S. military mission in Iraq, filed a middle-of-the-night lawsuit in federal court challenging Trump's executive order as unconstitutional and seeking the release of their clients.
Lawyers also are seeking class certification so they may represent all refugees and visa-holders who are being held at U.S. ports of entry.
One of the men, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, was released Saturday afternoon without explanation from federal officials, according to his lawyer, Mark Doss. "We are very grateful that Mr. Darweesh has been released," Doss told reporters outside JFK Airport in an interview broadcast on CNN. But 11 others are still being detained, he said, and "people will stay here until they are released."
Immigration advocates say at least one refugee family is detained at San Francisco International Airport, but it is not clear how many refugees are currently detained at airports nationwide. Advocates said that people have not only been held at the border, but that ticketed passengers have been barred from boarding U.S.-bound aircraft overseas, and that lawful permanent residents — or green-card holders — who left the U.S. are now unable to return.
Trump's executive order has caused "complete chaos" and torn apart families, said Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "It's causing a negative and destructive impact on the Arab-American community," Ayoub said.
The order suspends admission of all refugees for 120 days and bars for 90 days the entry of any citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iraq, even if they have valid visas. Trump said that the goal is to screen out "radical Islamic terrorists" and that priority for admission would be given to Christians.
It drew immediate condemnation from advocates for refugees and from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which announced plans to file a lawsuit next week challenging Trump's order as unconstitutional.
"There is no evidence that refugees — the most thoroughly vetted of all people entering our nation — are a threat to national security," Lena F. Masri, CAIR's national litigation director, said in a statement. "This is an order that is based on bigotry, not reality."
Both Iraqi men now detained at JFK held valid U.S. visas and had been receiving pro-bono legal assistance for several months from the New York-based International Refugee Assistance Project. Betsy Fisher, the organization's policy director, said the men were in the air on separate flights when Trump signed the temporary ban on refugees Friday. She called their detention "our worst-case scenario."
"In the coming weeks we will be advocating to show why this policy is bad for U.S. national security, why it goes against our humanitarian responsibilities, and why it is fundamentally un-American," Fisher said. "If there is one fundamentally American value then it is welcoming those who are fleeing persecution. At our best, this is what we can do."
The International Refugee Assistance Project was among several prominent immigration-rights organizations that filed the lawsuit in New York, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigration Law Center.
One of the Iraqi men detained at JFK is Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi, 33, who holds a visa that allowed him to join his wife and young child in Texas. His wife had worked for a U.S. government contractor and came to the United States as a refugee in 2014.
The other detainee is Hameed Khalid Darweesh, 53, who had worked as a contractor for the U.S. government in Iraq for about a decade, including as an interpreter for the Army. He and his wife and three children had spent more than two years securing a special immigrant visa, granted to Iraqis who assisted U.S. military forces.
The Darweesh family landed in New York at approximately 6 p.m. Friday evening, and Hameed Darweesh was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. He has not been allowed to speak with his attorneys and is at risk of being returned to a country where he faces enormous risks to his personal security due to his aid to the U.S. government, the complaint says.
The detention of a man who served the U.S. military is particularly abhorrent to Matt Zeller, founder of No One Left Behind, which aims to help Iraqi and Afghan people who worked for the U.S. military secure special immigrant visas.
He said America is breaking its promise to men and women who served the U.S. military at great personal risk to themselves — which is not only wrong, he said, but also undermines trust in the United States and endangers the lives of any future service member sent overseas.
"This is going to get future Americans killed in future wars. It comes down to that," he said. "We're never going to live down this shame if we let this go on."
An Army veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Zeller said his life was saved by his Afghan interpreter, who served the U.S. military there for nine years. During the past 24 hours, he said he has fielded requests for help from nearly 1,000 clients in Afghanistan and Iraq, most of whom have been waiting years to be processed through what Zeller called "the most extreme vetting process our country can muster."
Two of his clients are in the air now and are scheduled to land at Virginia's Dulles International Airport tonight, he said.
Marielena Hincapie, executive director for the National Immigration Law Center, said immigration advocates first learned of immigrants being detained Friday evening after a report from a family detained in San Francisco. The advocates attempted to reach U.S. Customs and Border Protection but were unsuccessful.
"We were trying to find out if it was lack of communication or what was the plan?" she said in an interview Saturday morning.
Then they learned of the two immigrants from Iraq who had been detained at JFK Airport.
"We don't have any guidance" from U.S. officials, Hincapie said. "That's when we decided to file."
Lawyers for the two Iraqis held in New York have been unable to speak to their clients. When the lawyers asked to speak with them, Customs and Border Protection agents at JFK said that they were not the ones to field such a request.