Airports around the country were transformed into ad hoc legal centers over the weekend, as attorneys continued furiously to file petitions to free detained clients who were ensnared by President Donald Trump’s executive order restricting entry into the United States. Attorneys and politicians charged that US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents were flouting the federal judiciary by not allowing lawyers access to detainees, not releasing the names of those in detention, and pressuring those in detention to sign papers to speed up their removal from the United States.
The chaotic clash between an executive branch intent on intensifying its war on foreigners and a judiciary committed to Constitutional protections began on Saturday night and early Sunday morning. Federal judges around the United States ruled that President Donald Trump’s executive order targeting refugees and Muslims must not be enforced—at least for now—against travelers with valid visas who were on their way to the United States at the time the order was issued. First a judge in New York, and then judges in Boston, Seattle, Alexandria, and Los Angeles issued rulings to temporarily stay Trump’s executive order as it winds through the court system, protecting detainees in airports, for now, from deportation.
Protesters and lawyers celebrated the rulings. The Boston ruling was the broadest in scope: The judges there said that refugees with valid legal papers as well as lawful immigrants from the seven Muslim-majority countries named in the Trump order must be allowed into the country without being detained, at least for the next week, until another hearing is held. However, it seems the order only applied to Boston, not the whole country. The Los Angeles ruling was different than the others in that it directed the US government to permit the return of a visa holder from Iran who had already been deported under the executive order.
But on Sunday, the sense of victory for civil-liberties advocates was tempered by the fact that CBP agents continued to detain immigrants and refugees. At least in New York, the judge’s ruling did not explicitly bar the continued detention of travelers, although it did rule that they could not be deported. However, some lawyers and advocates at John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) argued that federal agents should not impede the entry of those with legal papers, and that prolonged detention violated due-process rights.
“For anyone who is coming in here to JFK, CBP needs to let them through, as long as they have a valid green-card or a valid visa,” Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York and director of the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project, told The Nation. He added that the executive order underlying the detentions “is nothing other than thinly veiled racism and prejudice.”
At the same time, lawyers for some of the individuals who should have been covered by the stays reported that their clients were being pressured into signing papers that would expedite their removal. The Nation obtained a copy of one of those papers—called a Form I-275—from an immigration attorney helping out with the legal efforts. Attorneys alleged that it was being forced on detained travelers at JFK. It reads, in part: “I request that I be permitted to withdraw my application for admission and return abroad. I understand that my voluntary withdrawal of my application for admission is in lieu of a formal determination concerning my admissibility.” Notably, the form is written in English, not the first language of many detainees. (Despite such attempts, nobody was deported after the federal judge’s ruling, the New York Immigration Coalition said; however, two people were deported from JFK before the ruling.)
The clash between the executive branch and the judiciary lead to remarkable scenes: Members of Congress showed up at JFK in Queens and at Dulles Airport in Washington, DC, to pronounce a “constitutional crisis” because federal judges were not being listened to. Lawyers in DC claimed they were being barred from access to their clients, in defiance of legal orders. Lawyers in New York also did not have access to clients, but they continued to hole up inside JFK for hours, fueled by coffee and snacks, scrambling to file petitions to free detainees. Meanwhile, protests of Trump’s order continued at airports around the United States.
In the early afternoon, Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat whose district spans parts of Brooklyn and Queens, told reporters he had confirmed with the Department of Homeland Security that no deportations would take place, in line with the federal-court orders. But CBP continued to detain people, including green-card holders who had been held for over 30 hours, Jeffries said. (In the afternoon, the White House said green-card holders would be allowed into the country, and in the evening, lawyers at JFK said CBP told them green-card holders would be admitted with little hassle.)
“This is a constitutional crisis that has been visited upon us by the 45th president of the United States of America, who apparently doesn’t respect the rule of law or understand the rule of law,” said Jeffries. He added that the federal judge in New York had instructed CBP to release a list of names of detainees. But that also did not happen, an apparent violation.
Similar scenes played out at Dulles Airport in Washington, DC, On Saturday night, Senator Cory Booker arrived at the airport to try to get detainees access to lawyers, but CBP agents continued to block this from happening. And on Sunday, four members of Congress—Representatives Don Beyer, Gerry Connolly, John Delaney, and Jamie Raskin—and lawyers again tried to access detainees at Dulles, only to be turned away by CBP agents.
Lawyers, many of whom are volunteers who gave up their weekend, were forced to communicate with clients through conversations with family members, who were allowed to speak with detainees. In New York, most lawyers took up seats outside Central Diner in JFK. Seemingly every hour, a volunteer shouted, “I need an Arabic translator,” in order to facilitate their communication with families and released detainees, who trickled out as the hours ticked by. Lawyers at JFK told The Nation that the White House was approving people with visas for entry on a piecemeal basis. Since the executive order came into effect, 41 people have been released from detention at JFK, according to advocates.
At around 2:30 PM, Vahideh Rasekhi, an Iranian doctoral student at SUNY Stonybrook, walked out from detention in Terminal 4.
“I haven’t slept for more than 48 hours. I’m just so tired. I don’t know how I look,” she told a group of reporters who crowded around her.
Others remained detained throughout Sunday and into early Monday, however.
As the remarkable clash between federal judges and the Trump administration continued, demonstrators outside JFK continued to brave the cold.
“They say stand back, we say fight back,” went one chant. Another shouted slogan was far simpler, and captured the spirit of nationwide protests: “Let my people go!”