Iraqi Refugees Trying to Enter U.S. Detained at New York Airport Under Trump Administration’s New Rules

The wife of an Iraqi citizen who was detained at Kennedy Airport. She was at her sister’s home in Houston on Saturday. (Credit: Michael Stravato for The New York Times)
The wife of an Iraqi citizen who was detained at Kennedy Airport. She was at her sister’s home in Houston on Saturday. (Credit: Michael Stravato for The New York Times)

President Trump’s executive order closing the nation’s borders to refugees was put into immediate effect on Friday night. Refugees who were airborne on flights on the way to the United States when the order was signed were stopped and detained at airports.

The detentions prompted legal challenges as lawyers representing two Iraqis held at Kennedy Airport filed a writ of habeas corpus early Saturday in the Eastern District of New York seeking to have their clients released. At the same time, they filed a motion for class certification, in an effort to represent all refugees and immigrants who they said were being unlawfully detained at ports of entry.

Mr. Trump’s order, which suspends entry for all refugees for 120 days, created a legal limbo for people on their way to the United States and panic for families who were awaiting their arrival.

The president’s order also blocks the admission of refugees from Syria indefinitely, and bars entry into the United States for 90 days from seven predominantly Muslim countries linked to concerns about terrorism. Those countries are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

It was unclear how many refugees and immigrants were being held nationwide in the aftermath of the executive order. The complaints were filed by a prominent group including the American Civil Liberties Union, the International Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center, the National Immigration Law Center, Yale Law School’s Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization and the firm Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton.

The lawyers said that one of the Iraqis detained at Kennedy Airport, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, had worked on behalf of the United States government in Iraq for 10 years. The other, Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi, was coming to the United States to join his wife, who had worked for an American contractor, and young son, the lawyers said. They said both men had been detained at the airport on Friday night after arriving on separate flights.

The lawyers said they had not been allowed to meet with their clients, and there were tense moments as they tried to reach them.

“Who is the person we need to talk to?” asked one of the lawyers, Mark Doss, a supervising attorney at the International Refugee Assistance Project.

“Mr. President,” said a Customs and Border Protection agent, who declined to identify himself. “Call Mr. Trump.”

The executive order, which Mr. Trump said was part of an extreme vetting plan to keep out “radical Islamic terrorists,” also established a religious test for refugees from Muslim nations: He ordered that Christians and others from minority religions be granted priority over Muslims.

In the arrivals hall at Terminal 4 of Kennedy Airport, Mr. Doss and two other lawyers fought fatigue as they tried to learn the status of their clients on the other side of the security perimeter.

“We’ve never had an issue once one of our clients was at a port of entry in the United States,” Mr. Doss said. “To see people being detained indefinitely in the country that’s supposed to welcome them is a total shock.”

“These are people with valid visas and legitimate refugee claims who have already been determined by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to be admissible and to be allowed to enter the U.S. and now are being unlawfully detained,” Mr. Doss said.

A supervisor for Customs and Border Protection at Kennedy Airport declined to comment, referring questions to public affairs officials. Calls to officials in Washington and New York were not returned early Saturday.

According to the filing, Mr. Darweesh was granted a special immigrant visa on Jan. 20, the same day Mr. Trump was sworn in as president. Mr. Darweesh worked with the United States in Iraq in a variety of jobs — as an interpreter, engineer and contractor — over the course of roughly a decade.

Mr. Darweesh worked as an interpreter for the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Baghdad and Mosul starting shortly after the invasion of Iraq on April 1, 2003. The filing said he had been directly targeted twice for working with the United States military.

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SOURCE: NICHOLAS KULISH and MANNY FERNANDEZ
The New York Times