Refugees detained at US airports in wake of Trump rule

Iran retaliates to ‘insulting restriction’ by limiting visas given to American tourists

Protesters, lawyers and politicians gather at JFK airport following US president Donald Trump's executive order to limit the number of refugees and visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries entering the US. Video: Reuters

US president Donald Trump’s executive order closing US borders to refugees from seven countries has been put into effect.

Refugees who were in the air on the way to the US when the order was signed on Friday have been stopped and detained upon arrival at US airports.

The detentions prompted legal challenges as lawyers representing two Iraqi refugees held at Kennedy Airport in New York filed a writ of habeas corpus early Saturday in the Eastern District of New York seeking to have their clients released.

At the same time, they filed a motion for class certification, in an effort to represent all refugees and immigrants who they said were being unlawfully detained at ports of entry.


Mr Trump's order, which suspends entry of all refugees to the US for 120 days, created a legal limbo for individuals on the way to the United States and panic for families awaiting their arrival.

Mr Trump's order also stops the admission of refugees from Syria indefinitely, and it bars entry into the US for 90 days from seven predominantly Muslim countries linked to concerns about terrorism.

Those countries are Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

It was unclear how many refugees and immigrants were being held nationwide in the aftermath of the executive order.

A federal law enforcement official who confirmed the temporary ban said there was an exemption for foreigners whose entry is in the US national interest. It was not immediately clear how that exemption might be applied.

Mr Trump’s order exempts diplomats and those already in the US with a visa or green card will be allowed to stay.

The order immediately suspended a programme that last year resettled in the US about 85,000 people displaced by war, political oppression, hunger and religious prejudice.

The next group of refugees was due to arrive in the US on Monday, but the official said they would not be allowed into the country.

In response to the move, Iran’s foreign ministry announced it will limit issuing visas to American tourists in retaliation to the immigration crackdown.

The official IRNA news agency carried a statement by the Iranian foreign ministry saying Iran will resort to “counteraction” to Mr Trump’s executive order.

The statement said: “Iran, to defend the dignity of the great Iranian nation, will implement the principle of reciprocity until the removal of the insulting restriction against Iranian nationals.”

The statement says: “It will apply corresponding legal, consular and political actions.”


Saturday's legal complaints were by a prominent group including the American Civil Liberties Union, the International Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center, the National Immigration Law Center, Yale Law School's Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization and the firm Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton.

The lawyers said one of the Iraqis detained at Kennedy Airport, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, had worked on behalf of the US government in Iraq for 10 years.

The other, Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi, was coming to the United States to join his wife, who had worked for a US contractor, and young son, the lawyers said. They said both men were detained at the airport on Friday night after arriving on separate flights.

Lawyers said they were not allowed to meet with their clients, and there were tense moments as they tried to reach them.

“Who is the person we need to talk to?” asked one of the lawyers, Mark Doss, supervising lawyer at the International Refugee Assistance Project. “Mr. President,” said a Customs and Border Protection agent, who declined to identify himself. “Call Mr. Trump.”

The executive order, which Mr Trump said was part of an extreme vetting plan to keep out “radical Islamic terrorists,” also established a religious test for refugees from Muslim nations: He ordered that Christians and others from minority religions be granted priority over Muslims.

In the arrivals hall at Terminal 4 of Kennedy Airport, Mr Doss and two other lawyers fought fatigue as they tried to learn the status of their clients on the other side of the security perimeter.

"We've never had an issue once one of our clients was at a port of entry in the United States," Mr Doss said. "To see people being detained indefinitely in the country that's supposed to welcome them is a total shock." "These are people with valid visas and legitimate refugee claims who have already been determined by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to be admissible and to be allowed to enter the US and now are being unlawfully detained," he said.

A supervisor for Customs and Border Protection at Kennedy Airport declined to comment, referring questions to public affairs officials. Calls to officials in Washington and New York were not returned early Saturday morning. According to the filing, Hameed Khalid Darweesh was granted a special immigrant visa on January 20th, the same day as Mr Trump’s inauguration. He worked with the United States in Iraq in a variety of jobs - as an interpreter, engineer and contractor - over the course of roughly a decade.

Mr Darweesh worked as an interpreter for the Army's 101st Airborne Division in Baghdad and Mosul starting shortly after the invasion of Iraq on April 1, 2003. The filing said that he was directly targeted twice for working with the US military.


A husband and father of three, he arrived at Kennedy Airport on Friday evening with his family. Mr Darweesh’s wife and children made it through passport control and customs, but agents of Customs and Border Protection stopped and detained him.

Mr Alshawi was supposed to be reunited with his wife, who has been living in Texas. The wife, who asked to be identified by her first initial of D. out of concern for her and her family's safety, wiped away tears as she sat on a couch in her sister's house early Saturday, in a Houston suburb.

The woman, a 32-year-old who was born in Iraq, met her husband while both were students at a Baghdad college. The couple has one child - a 7-year-old son who is in first grade. The boy was asleep in the house at 3 am on Saturday, oblivious to the fact that his father was in the United States, but under detention and the possible threat of return to Iraq.

Relatives crowded the living room in their pajamas and slippers, making and receiving phone calls to and from other relatives and the refugee’s lawyers.

At times, D. was so emotional she had trouble speaking about her husband's predicament. She pulled out her cellphone and flipped through her pictures while seated on the couch. She wanted to show a reporter a picture she took of her son's letter to Santa Claus. In November, at a Macy's Santa-letter display at a nearby mall, the boy wrote out his wish: "Dear Santa: Can you bring my Dad from Sweden pls." He has not seen his father in three years.

“I’m really breaking down, because I don’t know what to do,” she said. “It’s not fair.”