How the Refugee Crisis at LAX Unfolded: A Q&A With the ACLU
By 4 p.m. Saturday a crowd of thousands of demonstrators streamed through the lower level of the Tom Bradley International Terminal.
On Friday, President Trump handed down an executive order, historic in its sweep, that has turned the nation’s refugee program upside-down. Under the terms of the presidential decree, all refugees are blocked from entering the United States for a period of 120 days. The order also refuses entry to refugees from the war-torn and majority-Muslim nations of Syria, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Libya pending the development of new “extreme vetting” procedures.
On Saturday, Jan. 28, reports of travelers from Muslim countries being detained or turned back at airports across the country — including green-card holders who are permanent U.S. residents — began whirling around social media. That afternoon, people began gathering in large numbers at LAX's Tom Bradley International Terminal to protest the measure and oppose the detentions, joined by dozens of legal volunteers who offered their services to the detained and their families.
By 4 p.m. a crowd of thousands of demonstrators streamed through the lower level of Tom Bradley International, their chant of "Build a wall, we'll tear it down" welling up to the departures level upstairs. Many drivers caught in the snarl of traffic behind the procession nonetheless honked their horns and waved in support. The demonstrators were a cross-section of L.A., carrying homemade signs with slogans that veered from the sardonic ("Extreme Vetting of Trump's Taxes First") to the clever ("I'm With Her" with a portrait of Lady Liberty) to the lofty (the Emma Lazarus poem at the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.")
The ACLU estimates that more than 100 people traveling to LAX from Muslim countries were detained over the weekend.
The ACLU is one of several groups that are working on coordinating the legal volunteers at the airport and the legal challenges in court. Since Friday, Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrants rights for the ACLU of California and senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, has been part of an all-hands-on-deck effort at the ACLU office in L.A. — fielding calls from the families of the detained, gathering information from legal volunteers at the international terminal, and translating the developing crisis into legal objections in federal court.
Among the travelers she discovered were being held in detention at LAX were elderly women in poor health, a father who'd come to reunite with his wife and son after 12 years apart, and a young mother and her 11-month-old child born in the United States — all of whom, she says, were traveling "legally" and being held in detention at the airport on no legal basis except that they fit one of the national profiles spelled out in the presidential order.
On Saturday night, a federal judge in Brooklyn issued an emergency stay that prevents people with valid visas who were being held in detention at U.S. airports from being deported under Trump's executive order. That group included approximately 100 people being detained in LAX, all of whom reportedly have been released.
On Monday, the ACLU and other legal organizations were still trying to verify whether people are still being detained at LAX, and at the same time were waiting to see what will happen to travelers on the international flights scheduled to begin arriving at LAX at midday on Monday.
Pasquarella spoke to L.A. Weekly on Monday to discuss the latest developments of the unfolding refugee crisis in L.A. and across the nation.
On Saturday, protestors turned out in large numbers at LAX's Tom Bradley International Terminal to protest the detentions of travelers from Muslim countries.
What is the overall number of detainees at LAX since the executive order went into effect?
We don’t have a clear number because CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] is not really releasing any data. But my estimate would be there have to be more than 100 people detained over the weekend. We have a client who reports that, when she was detained on Saturday, there were at least 70 to 80 people there with her.
How many have been released?
According to the latest reports, they’ve all been released. We don’t know, though, if there are people being detained right now. We were hearing last night that people were being released but at midday the next [day] international flights started coming in. So there are new classes of people that are going to be subject to this policy as the flights come in. And that’s what we’re trying to get information about from the volunteers who are at LAX right now.
What countries are the detainees coming from?
Most are coming from Iran. That’s certainly the largest category. And then they’re coming from all the other seven countries. We saw some Iraqis. I don’t know if we actually saw anybody from Libya or Somalia. There were some Yemenis. But the vast majority are from Iran.
How many people have been prevented from boarding flights to Los Angeles from these countries?
We don’t have numbers, but I can tell you it’s quite a large number. Our phones were just ringing off the hook all weekend long. And that’s true of ACLU offices across the country.
How do detainees describe the situation in airport detention at LAX? What is happening inside the detention areas?
It doesn’t appear that they’re being questioned really at all. It’s simply that they are subject to the executive order and they’re being coerced into signing documents to revoke their immigration status. That is the thing that appears to have been a systemic problem, at least at LAX. And we now have multiple stories of people who were pressured into signing and were either deported or eventually released, even though they had signed these documents. One of our clients in the TRO [temporary restraining order] that we filed yesterday was here on a visa. We just learned she was forced to sign something. Even though she signed it, they still released her.
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Did Customs and Border Protection refuse to comply with a court order?
What I can say is that CBP ignored the stay. They ignored the stay all throughout Saturday, and they appeared to have ignored it on Sunday as well. The stay applied nationwide, and it means that they can’t remove people. And yet they were coercing people into signing documents to effectuate their removal. At one point on Saturday the U.S. Marshals were brought in to intervene because [CBP] were not adhering to the court’s order.
What document are the people in detention at LAX being “coerced” to sign?
It depends on what the person’s immigration status is. For people who have visas, what we were hearing is they were being coerced into signing something withdrawing the application for admission. Basically saying, "I give up my visa." And then for people who have green cards, they were being forced to sign a form used to revoke your permanent residency.
Will everyone who arrives to LAX from one of the seven countries on the list, whether they have green cards or otherwise valid legal status, continue to be subject to detention?
Potentially. That’s what we’re waiting to figure out. The government has now said that they’re not subjecting green-card holders to the executive order. But what they say may not translate into practice. So that’s what we need to keep monitoring.
We’ve been hearing through the weekend that green-card holders were being detained and that they were being prevented from boarding flights overseas. So the question now is, has that practice completely changed? And has it changed across the board at the airports inside the United States as well as at airports internationally?
What is the ACLU of Southern California’s position on the constitutionality of this executive order?
Our position is that it’s unconstitutional for a variety of reasons. First and foremost it violates the First Amendment; it violates the equal protection clause, because it is inherently discriminatory on the basis of religion and national origin. There’s also claims that it violates immigration law. But the most important is that it violates basic tenets of our constitutional rights.
What specific actions has the ACLU of Southern California taken in court in L.A.?
In L.A. on Saturday, we filed our first temporary restraining order and habeas petition on behalf of an Iranian man who had already been held in detention at LAX for a prolonged period. He had actually flown in on Friday night, and he was forced to sign a document revoking a visa he had, which was actually like the predicate to green-card status. So he needed to be admitted, and then he would be able to convert his status to a green card. And they basically forced him to sign this document and then literally forcibly put him on a plane back to first Dubai and then eventually Iran.
We filed the habeas for him basically at the moment that they were literally carrying him and forcing him onto an airplane. So what happened is he gets effectively deported to Dubai — and Dubai authorities, at the apparent direction of CBP, held him and would not allow him to get back on a plane to the United States, but instead detained him and then forced him onto another plane back to Iran. We asked the court for immediate relief to order the government to bring him home. And the court signed that order, approved that order yesterday afternoon. So now we’re working with the government to have them facilitate his return to the United States.
Who are some of the other clients the ACLU of Southern California is representing in court?
Two of the women whom we filed on behalf of yesterday, elderly women who were detained for around 26 hours. And they both came on the same plane. One was 82, the other was 78. One was from Iraq, one was from Iran. One of them is a diabetic who needs regular insulin infusion. At some point on Saturday afternoon she fell ill and CBP called an ambulance for her and then she improved — and they kept detaining her, all the way until the next day, over 24 hours, in a room with no beds, just chairs. They had to sleep sitting up, they had no food, it was cold. And meanwhile they’re threatening them to sign these documents, and if they don’t do it they’ll be deported and permanently barred from coming back to the United States.
Another is Fatema Farmad. She is a lawful permanent resident who had an 11-month-old baby with her who is a U.S. citizen. They detained her for over 12 hours and again tried to pressure her into signing a form to revoke her permanent residency, even though not only is she a permanent resident but she has already been approved for citizenship and has the swearing-in ceremony for citizenship in early February. But yet they detained her all that time and the baby didn’t have food, didn’t have warm clothes, it was very cold. And now the family is telling me that the baby is very ill as a result.
How significant have the protests at the airport been to supporting the legal work that you and the others have been working on?
The most important thing about the protest is the attention it is drawing to the issue and helping to really elevate just how extremely significant this executive order is, how problematic it is and how much it undermines all of our shared values as Americans. I think the fact that you see such a cross-section of people coming out to protest this at airports across the country is really a reflection of that.
So ultimately the most important thing here is that everybody raise their voices and speak out and draw attention to this. And the more we do that, the more the politicians will engage and the stronger our chances of relief through the courts will be. And hopefully at the end of the day it will make clear and make sure that the administration adheres to the rule of law and to court orders.
Do the events since Friday indicate we are experiencing a constitutional crisis?
It is very significant and very troubling to see that right out of the gate not only are we facing unconstitutional administrative action but that the administration appears to be defying one of the most important branches of our government, which is the judiciary. And so we have to see how this plays out. But it is a very troubling sign.
The impact of this order is on a scale that I think is unprecedented in the immigration world in particular, but probably cutting across many different issue areas. And it’s going to continue to require a lot of resources and effort to fully respond and address it.
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