When Donald Trump issued his first travel ban on Jan. 27, he threw countless families into chaos. The executive order instantly suspended the refugee resettlement program and barred citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Thousands of people blocked by the ban were already on their way to the U.S. when it took effect. That meant U.S. Customs and Border Protection had to decide on the fly how to treat the many people unwittingly ensnared in the confusion. The agency’s decision: Detain and deport all targeted travelers while remaining as opaque as possible, ignoring requests of elected officials, disregarding federal court orders, and turning away attorneys who represent detained individuals.
CBP’s strategy is laid out in a series of emails obtained by the Daily Beast’s Betsy Woodruff, messages which make clear that the agency believed it was accountable to no one. In one email, a CBP official advised agents to ignore phone calls from lawyers, describing them as “a form of telephonic protest.”
“Please advise all your personnel not to engage the callers nor respond to any questions,” the email stated. This directive was sent four days after U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema ruled that legal permanent residents (green card holders) detained under the ban at Dulles International Airport must be allowed access to attorneys. By that point, the administration had changed its position on green card holders three times. The government first claimed they were subject to the ban and compelled them to surrender their green cards, then shifted to conducting evaluations on a “case-by-case basis,” and finally declared they were fully exempt from the ban. But lawyers who contacted CBP to confirm it was complying with the latest rule were wholly ignored, despite a court order protecting their right to access detainees.
This email confirms earlier reports that CBP officers who stretched the bounds of the law were following orders, not going rogue. We already knew that, in response to Brinkema’s ruling, the executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Field Operations, Todd Owen, allegedly told Dulles agents not to grant lawyers access to detainees. Instead, he instructed officers to give detainees the phone numbers for legal services organizations. (At that very moment, dozens of lawyers were gathered at the airport.) A CBP official also told an aide to Sen. Cory Booker that lawyers would not be allowed to speak to detainees in spite of Brinkema’s order. The CBP ultimately ignored Brinkema’s ruling for several days. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring urged the judge to hold officers who violated her order in contempt of court.
Other emails obtained by the Daily Beast prove that CBP developed a strategy for dealing with the elected officials who demanded answers from agents at airports: Stonewall them. In one email sent on the evening of Jan. 28, Owen wrote that CBP officers “are NOT to engage with the media or Congressional representatives at this time. Please make sure your subordinate Port Directors are following this direction.” Instead, representatives were directed to CBP’s Office of Congressional Affairs. But this office then refused to answer their questions, or even state how many detainees were being held. (The administration repeatedly misrepresented this figure; we now know that at least 746 people were detained.)
Another series of emails reveals that CBP took dozens of photos of the protesters who gathered at airports and sent many of these pictures to the Department of Homeland Security.
In the aftermath of the ban, one CBP agent told a lawyer that wasn’t trying to break the law; he was “just following orders.” It’s telling that the orders this agent saw fit to follow came from the president rather than a court of law. If Congress truly wishes to rein in Trump, it should start by investigating and reforming the agency that will follow the president to his most lawless extremes.