What's at Stake in Trump's Troubled Travel Ban: Stories From Immigrants at the Front Lines
On Jan. 30, three days after President Donald Trump banned travelers from seven mostly Muslim countries, a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul landed at Los Angeles International Airport carrying a 30-year-old Iraqi passenger named Alan Abdullah.
Abdullah has a green card, which he was able to obtain after moving to the United States with his family last year. Prior to that, he had earned a special immigration visa in exchange for his service to the United States military. For seven years he was an interpreter for the Army in the northern region of Kirkuk, and he was wounded twice.
In 2006, at the age of 20, he was on foot patrol with an American GI in a restive and violent area of Kirkuk Province known as al-Rashad when the soldier stepped on a concealed explosive device. The detonation blew off both of the soldier's legs. Abdullah was wounded by shrapnel from the explosion. A year later, in 2007, the Humvee in which he was patrolling struck a bomb, and he survived a second explosion.
Abdullah is trim and fit and wears his hair close-cropped like a military man. He speaks with admiration for the American soldiers he knew in Iraq, who he says helped him improve his English and became his friends.
When Abdullah's daughter was born three years ago, medical tests revealed that she had a genetic heart abnormality called dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM, which can lead to heart failure. He says that's what led him to come to the United States. "There was no treatment for her in Iraq. I took her to many places without any responses."
Abdullah says he waited two years in Iraq for his visa application to be approved. "Nobody can come to the U.S. easily — no one," he says. "It doesn't matter what your job was or what you did over there. That only gives you the right to apply."
The family relocated to Seattle last year, where further testing revealed that Abdullah's wife and 7-year-old son also have DCM. He returned to Iraq before the inauguration, to be with his mother when she underwent back surgery. He says that when he booked the flight, he didn't anticipate that returning to the United States would be problematic.
But by the time Abdullah boarded the LAX-bound plane in Iraq, he was fully aware of the days-old order that had turned the U.S. immigration system upside down. Historic in its sweep, Trump's order banned Syrian refugees indefinitely, barred all refugees for 120 days, and blocked entry to travelers with passports from seven mostly Muslim countries: Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Abdullah's native Iraq.
Alan Abdullah, a green card holder from Iraq, was trying to get back into the United States to be with his family, including his 3-year-old daughter with a heart condition.
Despite Abdullah's service to the U.S. military and his green card, his admittance to the country was far from a sure thing. The decree from Trump had sown chaos at LAX, as it had at airports around the country: Green card holders and residents of countries that weren't on the list were being detained, and travelers were being denied legal counsel and threatened into signing paperwork that revoked their visas, according to legal volunteers. Dozens, perhaps hundreds — Customs and Border Protection won't release the numbers — were sent back to their countries of origin, mistakenly believing they had lost their chance to enter the United States.
A spokesman for CBP did not respond to email and voicemail requests for comment from L.A. Weekly.
In recent days, there has been such swift legal back-and-forth over Trump's so-called Muslim ban that it's hard to know, day to day, who might be admitted or turned away. On Feb. 3, a federal judge in Seattle issued a ruling that blocked the key parts of the executive order and allowed immigrants and travelers who had been barred from entry to come to the United States. On Feb. 7, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco held oral arguments on the earlier ruling. (UPDATE: On Feb. 9, the appeals court ruled against Trump, continuing to block his ban. The case likely will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.)
Clearly, the order was exacerbated by its rushed implementation. It reportedly was written by Trump's White House advisers, led by Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller, with only last-minute consultation with the federal agencies charged with enforcing or defending it: most notably, the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department.
Susan Riley, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, told a federal judge during a Jan. 28 emergency hearing on the ban: "This has unfolded with such speed that we haven't had an opportunity to address the issues, the important legal issues." At JFK International Airport in New York, a customs officer allegedly told a legal advocate demanding to know who's in charge to "call Mr. Trump."
Sarah Brunet, an immigration attorney in private practice, who was volunteering her time at LAX last week, called the ban "pure discrimination, pure profiling." She and other legal volunteers had helped assemble packets packets of news stories and court orders issuing stays against the ban. This, simply to allow the passengers a chance to reach L.A.
Abdullah's flight arrived at LAX at 4:09 p.m., and as the plane was taxiing to the arrivals gate he texted his attorney, Matthew Walter, to let him know he was here. Abdullah had never met or even spoken to Walter; after panic initially spread following news of the travel ban, Abdullah posted a query on Facebook to see if anyone knew a good lawyer in L.A.
Walter was waiting at LAX with his boss, attorney Gihan Thomas, amid a crowd of desperate families and legal volunteers, at the reception area outside the security checkpoint of Customs and Border Protection. The legal volunteers conducted triage, with one volunteer helping a Persian woman in a hijab fill out an intake form, another receiving a stranger's donation of extension cords. Others paced the length of the terminal holding up signs in English, Arabic and Persian offering free legal help.
"In 19 years, I've never seen anything like this," Thomas said, glancing around at the personal crises unfolding around her. "This is totally unprecedented."
Three days earlier, at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 27, an Iranian citizen named Ali Vayeghan was one of the first people detained at LAX under the order. Vayeghan had been heading to the United States to reunite with his wife and a son he had not seen in 12 years. Though traveling on a valid U.S. visa that made him eligible for a green card upon entry, he was held overnight and coerced into signing a voluntary removal order, according to attorneys with the ACLU of Southern California. When he refused to board the plane back to Iran on Saturday afternoon, he had to be physically carried onto the aircraft.
The ACLU filed an action in federal court in L.A. on the afternoon of Jan. 28, while Vayeghan was still on the ground, seeking to bar his removal. Five days later, Vayeghan became the first person removed under the executive order who was brought back pursuant to a court order. But there are dozens if not hundreds more people in his situation, valid visa holders who were sent back to their own countries due to the order, according to Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California.
"We filed an emergency motion this week on behalf of individuals who had been detained, seeking access to those people," Bibring said. One of the ACLU's current missions is "to try to advise them as to their rights before they're coerced into withdrawing their visa applications unlawfully," he added.
Bibring said his office has seen numerous cases of travelers who were given false information: that their visas had been canceled and that they had the choice of voluntarily withdrawing them and going home or being forcibly deported and barred from re-entering for five years. At LAX, those travelers included two elderly women, one of whom is Iranian and the other Iraqi, who are in poor health and were detained for 26 hours; and a young mother from Iran and her 11-month-old child (a U.S. citizen), who were detained for more than 12 hours, according to Bibring.
Ali Vayeghan, one of the first people detained at LAX under Trump's order, was sent back to Iran but returned to the U.S. thanks to a court order.
By 7 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 30, hundreds of protesters had crowded the arrivals area at LAX's Tom Bradley International Terminal, chanting in unison, "Let them in! Let them in!" Bewildered-looking travelers fresh from customs steered their luggage carts past a line of airport police officers who were blocking protesters from the customs inspections area.
Glen Peterson, director of the World Relief office in Orange County, was waiting for a family of six from Afghanistan; their flight had arrived more than seven hours earlier. The father, 38-year-old Attaee Abdullah (no relation to Alan Abdullah), is a tractor mechanic who had spent eight years working for a private U.S. military contractor in Kabul, repairing American tanks and armored personnel carriers. Abdullah was traveling on a special immigrant visa from the U.S. Embassy and was carrying the ID badge from his job and a letter of recommendation from his American employer.
Peterson and other staff from World Relief were working in cooperation with the State Department to resettle the Abdullah family in Orange County.
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The Abdullahs landed at LAX at 12:45 p.m., and at 8 p.m. Peterson still had not received word from them.
"CBP has refused to let our clients be seen or to talk to us or see counsel," Peterson said. "We've been told they've had access to interpreters. But on a day like this I'll believe it when I see it."
Afghanistan is not among the seven countries banned by Trump's order, and the Abdullahs are not refugees. Peterson rattled off the names of a dozen or more nations from which World Relief welcomed refugees fleeing war and persecution, as part of the U.S. duties under the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. "We have had phone calls from a lot of refugee clients since this started," Peterson said. "They're terrified that they're next."
Legal volunteers confirm that the immediate effect of the ban has extended beyond the seven countries on Trump's list. On Jan. 30, a family from India was held for at least eight hours, and a physician from Jordan with a U.S. green card was held for more than four hours. Once released, the Jordanian told volunteers that "at least 100 people" were still being held.
Airport cops on mountain bikes were weaving in and out of the flow of LAX travelers pulling suitcases through the concourse. Peterson took a phone call and looked relieved. The Afghan family had been released.
Standing near the exit to the terminal, Attaee Abdullah rested his hands on the shoulders of his sons Ahsan, 9, and Urfan, 7. The ordeal of the past seven hours was etched on his tired expression. He agreed to speak briefly while his 32-year-old wife, Fahima, sat in an airport chair, tending to the couple's 2- and 3-year-old children, Ashegh and Somaya.
Attaee Abdullah, who is from Afghanistan, was detained for seven hours at LAX customs — even though his homeland isn't among the countries included in Trump's ban.
Abdullah answered questions in his native Dari, his responses translated by a volunteer interpreter. For eight years, he said, he had criss-crossed Afghanistan while employed as the chief mechanic in a civilian unit attached to the U.S. Army. He said the stern border patrol agents who detained him at LAX made a show of doubting his bona fides, and after six hours threatened to deport him. "I told him I have a visa, you can't deport me," he recalled.
Asked if he ever came under fire during his work for the military, Abdullah nodded and told of a surprise attack by the Taliban in the province of Maidan Wardak, and how a friend of his, a fellow mechanic, was shot and killed.
Abdullah said that after seven hours of detainment at LAX customs, the border patrol officer informed him that the U.S. Embassy in Kabul had confirmed his story.
Peterson shook his head at Abdullah's retelling. The chant from hundreds of protesters — "No hate, no fear, everyone is welcome here" — echoed around the concrete-and-glass exterior of the Tom Bradley International Terminal as the Abdullah family was helped into a waiting minivan. Back at the table of legal volunteers, exit interviews revealed that two more Afghan families with authorization to enter the United States were being held at the airport. One of the families, legal volunteers said, was detained for more than 12 hours.
For every refugee or "banned" immigrant guided through the barriers to entry at LAX, attorneys have found many more who weren't permitted to board flights in cities like Doha, Qatar; Dubai, U.A.E.; Istanbul; and even Paris and Stockholm. Those travelers were stuck in interminable layovers, paying for hotels or sleeping at the airport, or simply returned home thinking that getting to the United States was a lost cause.
International airlines including KLM, Lufthansa and Scandinavian were refusing to board passengers from the countries targeted by the ban. One legal volunteer had a copy of a waiver that Turkish Airlines was issuing to travelers who were green card holders or dual citizens, asking them to assume the cost of a return flight in the event the border patrol barred their entry in the United States.
On signing the ban, Trump said it was intended "to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America." But at LAX on Jan. 30, the travelers who emerged after hours of detention at CBP appeared to be L.A. residents — predominantly Iranian-Americans — with family ties to the countries on Trump's list.
Susan Taleban, 54, a Muslim woman born in Iran, described how she travels regularly from her home in L.A. to care for her elderly mother in Esfahan, about 250 miles south of Tehran. She said customs authorities at LAX held her for questioning for more than two hours. She credited a team of volunteer attorneys for securing her entry, saying that had they not intervened on her behalf, she fears she could have been sent back to Iran.
Vartan Mokhtarian, 68, waited three hours before approaching a Persian-speaking volunteer at the airport for help. He told the volunteer that he had not heard from his wife and son, Iranian Christians and U.S. green card holders, since they landed in L.A. His son, Artin Mokhtarian, 35, had gone to Tehran to propose marriage to an Iranian woman, the daughter of a family friend. The traditional engagement ceremony in a church calls for relatives from both families to attend, which is why his mother had accompanied him on the journey.
As an Iranian Christian, Artin Mokhtarian had received political asylum in the United States years ago. When he emerged from customs after four hours, he said the officer had pressed him, repeating the same question: Why did you go back if you knew that you had a problem there? "I tell him, 'This is a love story,'" he said.
Artin Mokhtarian, 35, had gone to Tehran to propose to an Iranian woman, the daughter of a family friend. The traditional engagement ceremony, pictured on his phone, calls for relatives from both families to attend.
On the evening of Jan. 30, Gihan Thomas, a well-dressed and plainspoken attorney of Egyptian descent, was still waiting at LAX for word from her client, Iraqi interpreter Alan Abdullah, more than three hours after he'd texted her. Thomas had retreated to a table at the Cantina Laredo, where she grew more aggravated with every unrewarded glance at her cellphone. Many of her clients are from Syria and Iraq. The executive order has wreaked havoc on their lives.
"Asylees can't petition to bring over family," she said. "Work permits are halted. Applications for green cards are halted. They are canceling oath ceremonies for naturalization for people from the seven countries."
Matthew Walter, the attorney at Thomas' firm whom Abdullah had retained, went to customs and asked an officer for an update. He said an officer told him, "We can't provide you any information about anyone in inspections." Walter was given the card of a public affairs liaison stationed in L.A. The call went to voicemail, and the mailbox was full.
The army of volunteer attorneys working in shifts at the airport had assumed the task of tabulating the scope of enforcement activities in reaction to the ban. A half-dozen of them were huddled around a folding table between the Cantina Laredo and a Pinkberry. Some were interviewing travelers who got through detention; others were looking for people who had family members detained or who were on flights with people who were detained. They combined the data into spreadsheets and shared it via social media with similarly structured groups of legal volunteers at airports across the country.
Immigrants from countries on the travel ban list protested at LAX in late January.
It turns out that customs officials had taken Abdullah to a sparse room, where he was left waiting for hours with about 20 other people, most of them Iranian. He said he watched as hundreds of fresh arrivals from countries in the Far East — many of them green card holders like him — breezed through customs and filed quickly past the room where he and so many others were being detained.
He wasn't allowed to text or talk with his wife, who was alone and 1,100 miles away at the apartment caring for the children.
Finally, the customs officer returned to him and said he was good to go, to grab his bags.
"He walked with me to the exit from the room," Abdullah recalled, "and he said welcome back home."
Abdullah stepped outside — in his rush to call his wife, he went out the wrong door and ended up on the upper level flanking the terminal. Alone and savoring the first moments out of detention, he lit a cigarette. Then he called Walter, who met him up there.
A roar of cheers welled upward from the arrivals area below, where a young woman was speaking into a microphone to the crowd of protesters. Abdullah recalled the first news reports about Trump's ban — and about the massive wave of protests against it — that he had watched on TV back in Iraq.
"When I saw civilian people going outside [to protest] for people they didn't know, only that they knew they were human, it was really encouraging for me," he said.
"I was really scared back there" in customs, he added. "But I thought about what was happening outside, and I said I'm going to get through this. This is my country."
Protesters jammed LAX's Tom Bradley International Terminal as news of the travel ban spread.
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