A federal judge has granted a stay on deportations for people who arrived in the US with valid visas but were detained on entry, following President Donald Trump’s executive order to halt travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.
The stay is only a partial block to the broader executive order, with the judge stopping short of a broader ruling on its constitutionality. Nevertheless, it was an early, significant blow to the new administration.
Less than 24 hours after two Iraqi men were detained at John F Kennedy airport in New York on Saturday morning, Judge Ann Donnelly of the federal district court in Brooklyn ordered an emergency stay, blocking the deportation of any individual currently being held in airports across the United States.
“I think the government hasn’t had a full chance to think about this,” Donnelly told a packed courtroom.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups filed the lawsuit earlier on Saturday, challenging the detention of the two Iraqi men, with two more plaintiffs were later added to the suit, who were both valid US green-card holders. But the judge’s ruling extended to all individuals facing similar situations across the United States.
The two plaintiffs included two Iraqi refugees who had spent hours detained at JFK: Hameed Khalid Darweesh, who had worked for the US government for a decade, and Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi, who arrived in the country to join his wife, a US contractor.
Donnelly, who was nominated by former president Barack Obama, ruled that the deportations could cause the plaintiffs “irreparable harm” by returning them to countries where they had been threatened. She also noted that the plaintiffs included visa-holders who had already been approved for entry to the US, and who, only two days before, would have been let into the country without incident.
“Obviously, we’re extremely pleased,” the head of the ACLU, Anthony Romero, told the Guardian. The judge, he said, “obviously gets the importance of the executive order and its impact on hundreds if not thousands of immigrants and refugees.”
The stay, which applies nationwide, will last at least until a hearing scheduled for 21 February, the judge said, and includes people on valid visas of all kinds and green-card holders.
However, it would only impact those who were “on American soil” – ie those who had been mid-flight or had landed while the executive order was being signed by the president, Romero said.
He estimated that there were at least 100-200 people currently being held in airports across the country, however he said the number could be higher. Asked by the judge to confirm the number, government lawyers were unable to respond with confidence.
Donnelly ordered the government to provide a list of all people currently being held in violation of the order at US airports or in flights, to protests from the government lawyers.
“I don’t think it’s unduly burdensome to get a list of names,” Donnelly said.
While the ruling gave hope to those detained on US soil, millions of people around the world face uncertain futures. People like Farah Alkhafji, who came to the US as a refugee from Iraq having endured the killing of her husband, the burning of her house and the kidnapping of her father. She was just weeks away from taking her US citizenship test.
Similarly, Hayder, who survived multiple bomb attacks while translating for US troops during the war in Iraq. Hayder, who has asked the Guardian not to use his real name, has a plane ticket from Texas from Baghdad that he may never get to use.
Shortly after Donnelly’s ruling, a federal judge in Virginia banned the deportation of detainees being held at Dulles International Airport, and also ordered officials there to allow detainees to meet with their lawyers.
Judge Leonie Brinkema’s temporary restraining order, however, blocked deportations for just seven days. In another case in Washington state, federal Judge Thomas Zilly stopped the US government from deporting two people. A hearing was set for 3 February for Zilly “to determine whether to life the stay”.
The hearing in Brooklyn though short, was potent, dealing the first successful legal challenge to an administration which has barrelled aggressively through its first week in power, implementing its draconian set of “extreme vetting” measures.
The swift pace at which the travel ban was drawn up was plain in the conduct of the court. Lawyers representing the government displayed a clear lack of information, echoing the confusion of various government agencies and officials in the past 24 hours, who had been implementing the order haphazardly.
“Things have unfolded with such speed, that we haven’t had time to review the legal situation yet,” an attorney representing the government said.
Alerted by the ACLU to the fact that a Syrian woman with a valid US green card had been detained upon arrival into the United States and had been placed on a plane due to take off “back to Syria” within 30 minutes, the judge moved swiftly to reach her conclusion.
“Apparently there is someone being put on a plane. What do you think about that? Back to Syria,” an increasingly frustrated Donnelly asked lawyers for the government. She pressed them further on whether the government could give assurances that the woman would suffer no “irreparable harm” upon her arrival in Syria.
But Gisela Westwater, a government lawyer who spoke to judge by phone from Washington, simply replied that the government did not have sufficient information about the woman or the circumstances of her detention. “And as your honor has suggested, we all do require additional time to have more facts.”
Well that’s exactly why I’m going to grant this stay,” Donnelly replied to muffled cheers in the room. The rapt audience, filled with of civil liberties advocates, lawyers and journalists who had tunnelled through a crowd of protesters chanting “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here”, was told by the judge to rein in their palpable excitement.
A lawyer with the ACLU later confirmed that US immigration officials were removing the Syrian woman from the plane.
Several hundred people waited for the verdict outside the courthouse, holding signs and chanting “let them go!” and “We believe that we will win”. When the verdict was announced to the crowd less than an hour later, those gathered in the bitter cold erupted in loud cheers.
Similar protests were replicated at more than a dozen airports around the country. Hundreds of people gathered to demonstrate at Kennedy airport in New York and the international ports in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Philadelphia and other cities where people were detained and families separated overnight. Multiple immigration lawyers were also at airports, offering their services pro-bono to those detained.