White House Defies Courts as Chaos, Protests, and Lawsuits Erupt Over Immigration Ban

Despite confusion over the ban at airports across the country, and court orders to halt removals, the Trump administration doubles down on limits for asylum-seekers and visa holders.

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 28: Protestors rally  during a demonstration against the Muslim immigration ban at John F. Kennedy International Airport on January 28, 2017 in New York City. President Trump signed the controversial executive order that halted refugees and residents from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 28: Protestors rally during a demonstration against the Muslim immigration ban at John F. Kennedy International Airport on January 28, 2017 in New York City. President Trump signed the controversial executive order that halted refugees and residents from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Hours after Donald Trump signed an executive order immediately barring refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries on Friday, Sami, an Iraqi who had worked with the U.S. government, boarded a plane in Istanbul. He, his wife and their two children watched “Tom and Jerry” cartoons as they waited to finally take off for America.

It had taken seven years and an extensive vetting process to get special immigration visas, (SIV), a restricted program for Iraqi and Afghan translators endangered by having worked for the U.S. military. Sami, whose name has been changed for safety concerns, had worked for the U.S. Army and USAID. Officials scheduled the family’s trip for Jan. 31, but Sami grew worried and bought tickets for Saturday, out of his own pocket. He woke up to see Trump had signed the order, but decided to head to the airport. The family passed through security, flew to Istanbul, and boarded their connecting flight.

Minutes later, security officers boarded.

“At that time both of us recognized that our dream has ended,” Sami told Foreign Policy Sunday.  As they gathered their belongings and left the plane, his 7-year-old daughter asked through tears, “‘Why they don’t want us in America?’”

Trump’s executive order on Friday immediately suspended the entire U.S. refugee admissions program for 120 days; indefinitely froze the entry of refugees from Syria; and barred for 90 days travelers from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.

In the United States and overseas, refugees approved for resettlement in the United States, permanent residents holding green cards, and others were turned away from flights, detained, and in some cases deported.

Federal judges in New York, Virginia, and Massachusetts, among others, issued emergency stays blocking officials from removing people with valid visas and asylum claims. But the Trump administration seemed determined to press ahead despite the court ruling.

“President Trump’s Executive Orders remain in place — prohibited travel will remain prohibited, and the U.S. government retains its right to revoke visas at any time,” DHS said in a statement Sunday morning. Later in the afternoon, Trump released his own statement. “To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting,” he said. “This is not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe.”

And Customs and Border Patrol agents at U.S. airports continued to enforce the order, in some cases denying lawyers access to detained individuals. Some lawyers have said they are pursuing contempt charges and have called for federal marshals to be sent in, as one judge outlined, if necessary to force compliance.

Over the weekend, as lawyers, protesters, and families flocked to airports, immigration officials — with no real guidance on how to enforce the order — told them: “Call Mr. Trump.”

White House Chief of staff Reince Priebus appeared to walk back parts of the hastily-prepared order, and said people with green cards from the seven countries will not be prohibited from returning to the United States. But he also further muddied the waters, noting that border agents still have “discretionary authority” to detain and question travelers. The administration will “apologize for nothing here,” Priebus said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Late Sunday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, (R-Tenn.), said the Trump administration should “immediately” revise the executive order.

Later Sunday evening, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, in his first public comment since Trump signed the order, said in a brief statement: “I hereby deem the entry of lawful permanent residents to be in the national interest.” Barring “significant derogatory information,” permanent legal status will now factor positively into case-by-case determinations, he said.

Still, current and former senior officials in the State Department and Department of Homeland Security told Foreign Policy that U.S. immigration and national security policy has been reduced to utter chaos. DHS officials are struggling to keep up with civil rights complaints pouring in, and guidance on implementation remains hazy, haphazard and even contradictory.

Veteran officials who normally would have reviewed the order’s language to ensure smooth implementation and avoid potential litigation have been cut out of the typical process by the Trump administration — or simply overruled, current and former officials told FP.

According to one person at DHS, the staff didn’t receive any official heads up before Friday’s executive order was published, beyond general meetings about what “extreme vetting” might mean.

“We had no idea,” another immigration official at DHS told FP. “It is complete confusion.”

Caught in the chaos was Said, a 29-year-old physician from Syria who works in a D.C.-area hospital. Late Sunday, he was still waiting at Dulles International Airport to learn what the U.S. government will do with his wife, who arrived Saturday night from Turkey and has been in U.S. custody since.

Said received a non-immigrant visa to live and work in the U.S. His wife escaped Aleppo in 2014, and they were married in 2015. In the past two years they have seen each other once, for a week.

With no other option, Said’s wife has applied for asylum, and as of Sunday afternoon remains in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention, according to their lawyer. They aren’t sure where.

“The executive order destroyed a lot of things,”Said said. “I’m sure a few days after this executive order, Americans who believe that this was the right policy, will know they are wrong.”

A senior Trump administration official on Saturday insisted Trump advisers had been in contact “for many weeks” with “key” State Department and DHS officials about the directive. “Everyone who needed to know was informed,” the official said.

But former senior DHS and State Department officials told Foreign Policy the chaotic implementation of the executive order makes it clear that veterans were railroaded by Trump advisors.

“There are no career officials at [Citizenship and Immigration Services] or DHS who would have done this when their previous counsel was that it was categorically wrong and potentially both unlawful and unconstitutional on either a national origin or religious test basis,” one senior official who just left DHS told FP.  

That break from typical government procedure riddled the executive order with holes, according to experts and former officials, which could expose it to legal challenge. The initial court rulings blocked most immediate deportations, but have stopped short of making a larger determination on the order’s constitutionality.

Dan Kesselbrenner, executive director for National Immigration Project, said he expected initial legal challenges will center around permanent residents from the banned countries, and due-process guarantees for immigration hearings. Even though foreigners don’t have the right to enter the United States, legal permanent residents and other visa holders “have the right to a fair process to decide whether you should come in,” he told FP.

Sami and his family made it back home just north of Baghdad early Sunday, after more than 15 hours of travel. Their house is nearly empty: Sami had sold most of the furniture to “buy our tickets to freedom.” Had they made it to the United States, their special immigrant visas would have granted them permanent legal status. Now they could be revoked.

“I’m still in shock,” he said, “looking to my wife and my kids and wondering what the future is holding for us.”

Paul McCleary contributed to this article. 

This story was updated at 6:30 p.m.

Photo credit: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images


Fatima Bhojani is a journalist writing about national security and foreign policy.