The Travelers Trapped in Horrific Limbo by Trump’s Immigration Order

Judicial stays couldn’t protect everyone detained at U.S. airports.

Protesters gather at the international arrivals area of Dulles International Airport on Saturday in Sterling, Virginia.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

In the short term, at least some of the plaintiffs detained at airports across the country this past weekend have seen some judicial relief since Saturday night. The two named plaintiffs in the suit filed in New York, Hameed Khalid Darweesh and Haider Sameer Abdulkaleq Alshawi, had been released by Saturday night. The two named plaintiffs in a Massachusetts lawsuit, Mazdak Pourabdollah Tootkaboni and Arghavan Louhghalam, both associate professors at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, were also allowed to leave Boston’s Logan Airport Saturday night.

But that isn’t the case for Tareq Aqel Mohammed Aziz and Ammar Aqel Mohammed Aziz. The two young men, citizens of Yemen and lawful holders of U.S. green cards, were refused entry to the United States at Dulles Airport on Saturday, and are now trapped in what their lawyer described as “Tom Hanks limbo” at the Addis Ababa airport in Ethiopia.

After President Trump signed his executive order suspending aliens from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from entering the United States for 90 days, lawful immigrants were trapped at airports around the country. Some of them were already on planes when the order went into effect. Between 50 and 60 people were held at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia, detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. For most of the day they were forbidden from meeting with their attorneys.

At about 9 p.m. Saturday night, Leonie Brinkema, a federal judge in the Eastern District of Virginia, issued a temporary restraining order that expressly provided the U.S. government must “permit lawyers access to all legal permanent residents being detained at Dulles International Airport.” Despite that order, throughout the evening it was reported that attorneys still hadn’t been let into the areas in which the detainees were being held by CBP. By about 1 a.m. Sunday, it appeared that all but one of the people they were holding had been allowed to enter the country, in part because Sen. Cory Booker went to Dulles at midnight and demanded that he be allowed to communicate with the detainees. That was around the time that Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Program, found out that his two clients, the Aziz brothers, had been sent to Addis Ababa. They’re from Yemen.

The Virginia suit, unlike those filed in Seattle and New York and Boston last night, was not an ACLU project. The LAJC is a legal advocacy shop that fights injustice and inequality in the lives of individual Virginians. They do so by way of impact litigation, community organizing, and policy advocacy, working on issues ranging across housing, education, civil rights, immigration, health care, and consumer finance. Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, together with Andrew Pincus and Paul Hughes of Mayer Brown LLP, filed the suit on behalf of the Aziz brothers, who are 19 and 21 years old. The two were stopped at Dulles yesterday, entering the United States from Yemen, on lawful green cards to which they are entitled by their U.S. citizen father.

Reports abound of lawful immigrants who have been turned away, denied access to medication, and prevented from speaking to counsel. The Aziz brothers’ story is particularly stunning because, says Sandoval-Moshenberg, not only were they handcuffed while they were detained by CBP at Dulles, and not only were they turned away and sent to Ethiopia, but they were also made to sign a form, known as the I-407. In doing so, they surrendered their green cards, under the threat of being barred from the U.S. for the next five years if they did not. Sandoval-Moshenberg tells me he couldn’t quite believe the two young men “were straight-up bullied into having their green cards taken away.” They were at no point given copies of any of the documents they had signed.

Sandoval-Moshenberg says he had reached out on Facebook trying to find potential plaintiffs and his inbox filled quickly. “I was getting messages from people all over the world,” he said, “including people who were writing in using the Wi-Fi from their planes. These are people who were lawfully boarding their flights, but as soon as the wheels hit the ground, they were covered by the executive order.”

It’s still not clear what the Department of Homeland Security plans to do about people like the Aziz brothers, who are right now trapped in an airport in a foreign land. Their lawyers have now been advised that security in Ethiopia is currently holding their Yemeni passports, so they cannot return to Yemen. As the weekend’s events were unspooling, no one even knew whether the executive order applied to green cards. As this CNN report notes, “Friday night, DHS arrived at the legal interpretation that the executive order restrictions applying to seven countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen—did not apply to people with lawful permanent residence, generally referred to as green card holders. The White House overruled that guidance overnight, according to officials familiar with the rollout.” And then on Sunday morning, Reince Priebus said that the order actually doesn’t apply to people with green cards. It seems that even within the same administration, alternative facts abound.

The DHS posture appears to be that it will continue to enforce the executive order, and also comply with the judicial orders that have been entered. Chaos on the ground means that you stand a better chance of being admitted if you arrive at Logan Airport than at Dulles. And immigration officials have told more than one detainee that if they don’t like their treatment, they should “call Mr. Trump.”

It’s going to be a long and bumpy road before we even begin to get clear on the scope and meaning of Trump’s executive action, and on the stories of the tens of thousands of people who did nothing more than get on an airplane. Lawyers at Dulles on Sunday tell me that CBP is simply refusing to answer any of their questions anymore. The smug cruelty of the DHS statement that “yesterday, less than one percent of the more than 325,000 international air travelers who arrive every day were inconvenienced while enhanced security measures were implemented” transcends belief as applied to actual people left in horrific limbo. For Tareq and Ammar Aziz, the fact that their lawyers scored a big win in Virginia on Saturday night doesn’t change the fact that they are in an airport in Ethiopia today, stranded without passports, and still do not have a home.

Read more in Slate about the Muslim travel ban.