Visa holders from seven majority-Muslim countries affected by President Donald Trump’s travel ban hurried to board U.S.-bound flights today, fearing they might have only a slim window through which to enter the country after a federal judge temporarily blocked the ban.
Those who could travel immediately were being urged to do so because of uncertainty over whether the Justice Department would be granted an emergency freeze of the order issued Friday by U.S. District Judge James Robart in Seattle. The government today suspended enforcement of the week-old ban as it scurried to appeal Robart’s order, although an immigration lawyer said passengers in at least one African airport were told they couldn’t get on the planes.
Rula Aoun, director of the Arab American Civil Rights League in Dearborn, Michigan, said her group is advising people to hurry.
“We’re telling them to get on the quickest flight ASAP,” said Aoun, whose group filed a lawsuit Tuesday in federal court in Detroit asking a judge to declare Trump’s immigration order unconstitutional.
Aoun said some people have had to make hard choices, including a Yemeni family expected to arrive at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Sunday from Egypt without two of their children. The father and two of the children are U.S. citizens, the mother has an immigrant visa, but the other two children did not yet have theirs and were left behind with relatives.
“They just don’t want to take a chance of waiting,” she said.
U.S. officials have said up to 60,000 foreigners had their visas “provisionally revoked” to comply with Trump’s order. Confusion during the rollout of the ban initially found green card holders caught in travel limbo, until the White House on Wednesday clarified that they would be allowed to enter and leave the U.S as they pleased.
Even so, green card holder Ammar Alnajjar, a 24-year-old Yemeni student at Southwest Tennessee Community College, cut short a planned three-month visit to his fiancee in Turkey, paying $1,000 to return immediately when the ban was lifted.
“I got to study. I got to do some work,” said Alnajjar, who arrived at JFK on Saturday. He said he fled civil war in Yemen and moved to the U.S. from Turkey in 2015. “I’m Muslim. I’m proud of it. Islam means peace.”
Although the government suspended enforcement of the travel ban while it sought an emergency stay of Robart’s order, some airlines reportedly still weren’t letting some people from the seven countries board their planes, at least initially.
Royal Jordanian Airlines, which operates direct flights from Amman to New York, Chicago and Detroit, said it would resume carrying nationals from the seven countries as long as they presented a valid U.S. visa or green card.
But in the African nation of Djibouti, immigration attorney Julie Goldberg said a Qatar Airways representative told her that immigrants from all seven countries affected by the ban — Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Iran and Somalia — were not allowed to fly Saturday afternoon. A Qatar Airways spokeswoman said the airline would begin boarding travelers from those countries.
Goldberg said she was trying to arrange flights for dozens of Yemeni citizens who have immigrant visas and were stranded there. She said a supervisor at Turkish Airlines told her that people holding immigrant and non-immigrant visas from the seven countries still were being banned unless they had a special email from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection with the person’s name and passport number.
A 12-year-old Yemeni girl whose parents and siblings are U.S. citizens living in California, was finally allowed to depart after “an hour-and-half of fighting” with officials, Goldberg said. It was unclear when she would arrive.
“Her mother is on pins and needles ... her father is on the plane with her,” Stacey Gartland, a San Francisco attorney who represented the girl, said in an email.
Refugees also awaited word on their fates.
A Somali refugee said about 140 refugees whose resettlement in the U.S. was blocked by Trump’s executive order were sent back to their refugee camp and it was unclear if or when they could travel.
Nadir Hassan said the group of Somali refugees was relocated to Dadaab camp in eastern Kenya on Saturday. They had been expected to settle in the U.S. this week and had been staying at an International Organization for Migration transit center in Nairobi.
“I was hoping to start a new life in the U.S.” Hassan said. “We feel bad.”
The State Department has advised refugee aid agencies that refugees who had been scheduled to travel before the order was signed will now be allowed into the U.S. A State Department official said in an email obtained by The Associated Press that the government is “focusing on booking refugee travel through February 17,” and they were working to have arrivals resume as soon as Monday.
American businesses affected by the ban also were jumping into action. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who quit Trump’s business advisory council this week following criticism of his initial response to Trump’s ban, said his company is buying plane tickets for some of its drivers who are stranded, tweeting Friday night that the head of litigation for the ride-hailing app is “buying a whole bunch of airline tickets ASAP!”
Protesters also took to the streets in several cities to protest the ban. Thousands gathered at Denver’s City Center Park Saturday, carrying signs, chanting and singing.
“I find it utterly cruel that Trump is depriving people of the same dreams my family and I had,” 17-year-old Zahra Abdulameer told the crowd. She said she came to the U.S. as a refugee from Iraq and is now a U.S. citizen. She said she was welcomed and treated with respect, but fears things could change amid fears over immigrants.
“No religion inflicts terror on people, but those who do so in the name of a faith have only twisted its value,” Abdulameer said.
Meanwhile, legal advocates waited at airports to offer assistance to new arrivals in case anything went wrong.
Volunteer attorney Renee Paradis was among 20-25 lawyers and interpreters who stationed themselves inside JFK’s Terminal 4 in case anyone arrived Saturday needing help. They were carrying handmade signs in Arabic and Farsi “that say we’re lawyers, we’re here to help. We’re not from the government,” Paradis said.
“We’re all just waiting to see what actually happens and who manages to get through,” she said.