Donald Trump’s executive order to close America’s borders to travellers from some Muslim-majority countries caused chaos on Saturday, as multiple people who had flown to the US were held at major airports while others were barred from boarding flights or were pulled off planes overseas.
By Saturday evening, there were 11 people in detention at New York City’s John F Kennedy airport who had arrived from Iraq and other barred countries, according to two Democratic members of Congress, Jerry Nadler and Nydia Velazquez, who joined protests at the airport.
According to representatives of immigration and civil rights group who spoke to reporters on a group call, other travellers were being held in Atlanta, Houston and Detroit.
Pre-approved refugees, students and workers holding visas and residency green cards were barred from flights to the US, according to reports emerging from Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Cairo and other cities across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. By evening in New York, hundreds of protesters had massed at Kennedy airport, and demonstrators gathered at at least 10 other major airports, including Dulles, LAX, San Francisco, Denver and Philadelphia.
As confusion reigned at airports, universities and businesses across the US, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security confirmed that people with green cards, making them legal permanent US residents, were included in the ban.
Trump’s executive order, signed on Friday, temporarily banned refugees from around the world, blocked Syrian refugees indefinitely and halted entry for 90 days for people from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia.
At the White House on Saturday, Trump expressed no doubt about his orders, saying: “It’s not a Muslim ban, but we were totally prepared. It’s working out very nicely. You see it at the airports, you see it all over.”
A state department spokesman confirmed to the Guardian that travellers who have dual nationality between a country on the list and another non-US country, for instance UK-Iraqi or Canadian-Somali citizenship,are barred from entering the US for 90 days. The order provides for giving priority to religious minorities in those Muslim countries; Trump has said the US will in future prioritise Christian refugees.
In New York City, two Iraqi refugees were detained at JFK airport. One, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, had worked in Iraq for the US government for 10 years. The other, Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi, was coming to the US to join his wife who had worked for a US contractor.
Congressman Nadler told the Guardian that anyone who was detained at an airport should “not sign anything and ask for a lawyer”.
“Donald Trump should revoke the executive order,” he said. “It’s unconstitutional on the grounds of religious discrimination.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups filed a lawsuit challenging the detention of the two Iraqi men, and Darweesh was allowed to enter the US on Saturday afternoon. He spoke before protesters outside terminal 4 at JFK airport, who shouted: “No hate, no war, refugees are welcome here.”
Darweesh told the Guardian he felt no ill will toward airport authorities. “They are good people,” he said. “They are just doing their duty.”
New York governor Andrew Cuomo ordered state transit officials and state attorneys to “explore all legal options to assist anyone detained at New York airports, and ensure that their rights are protected”. By 7pm local time, thousands of people had gathered at Kennedy airport, chanting “let them in”, and taxi drivers had staged a stoppage there in solidarity.
Overseas, airport officials appeared to err on the side of blocking passengers from listed countries. It was reported, for example, that seven people, being escorted by officials from the United Nations refugee agency, were prevented from boarding a flight from Egypt to New York after authorities in Cairo contacted their counterparts at JFK.Air Canada had reportedly advised people from the seven countries concerned not to board flights to the US, whether or not they held a green card.
Melanie Nezer, vice-president of HIAS, a US organization that helps to resettle refugees who had passed through the difficult US vetting process, said 2,000 people scheduled to arrive next week were now stranded overseas.
Mana Yegani, an immigration lawyer in Houston, said she had heard of several people with Iranian passports who were barred from US-bound flights leaving Amsterdam and Frankfurt. A number of other passengers were removed by security personnel just before take-off from the European cities.
“The agents said specifically that they had word from the US that those passengers would not be allowed to travel,” Yegani said.
Yakupitiyage, of the NYIC, said the order was a step toward a more “isolationist and cruel” United States. “We will be doing whatever we can with our legal partners to push back on this. It’s religious discrimination and this will not make America safer.”
She stressed that many refugees and managed to pass through the arduous, 18 to 24-month vetting system that was in place before the orders.
“Many have waited years,” she said.