By Yeganeh Torbati & Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s most far reaching action since taking office plunged America’s immigration system into chaos on Saturday, not only for refugees but for legal U.S. residents who were turned away at airports and feared being stranded outside the country.
Immigration lawyers and advocates worked through the night trying to help stranded travelers find a way back home. Lawyers in New York sued to block the order, saying many people have already been unlawfully detained, including an Iraqi who worked for the U.S. Army in Iraq.
Confusion abounded at airports as immigration and customs officials struggled to interpret the new rules, with some legal residents who were in the air when the order was issued detained at airports upon arrival.
“Imagine being put back on a 12-hour flight and the trauma and craziness of this whole thing,” said Mana Yegani, an immigration lawyer in Houston. “These are people that are coming in legally. They have jobs here and they have vehicles here.”
The new Republican president on Friday put a four-month hold on allowing refugees into the United States and temporarily barred travelers from Syria and six other Muslim-majority countries. He said the moves would protect Americans from terrorism, in a swift and stern delivery on a campaign promise.
The ban affects travelers with passports from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen and extends to green card holders who are legal permanent residents of the United States.
Arab travelers in the Middle East and North Africa said the order was humiliating and discriminatory. It drew widespread criticism from U.S. Western allies including France and Germany, Arab-American groups and human rights organizations.
Iran condemned the order as an “open affront against the Muslim world and the Iranian nation” and vowed to retaliate. Of the seven countries targeted, Iran sends the most visitors to the United States each year – around 35,000 in 2015, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The ban extends to green card holders who are authorized to live and work in the United States, Homeland Security spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said.
It was unclear how many legal permanent residents would be affected. A senior U.S. administration official said on Saturday that green card holders from the seven affected countries have to be cleared into the United States on a case-by-case basis.
Legal residents stunned
Legal residents of the United States were plunged into despair at the prospect of being unable to return to the United States or being separated from family members trapped abroad.
“I never thought something like this would happen in America,” said Mohammad Hossein Ziya, 33, who came to the United States in 2011 after being forced to leave Iran for his political activities.
Ziya, who lives in Virginia, has a green card and planned to travel to Dubai next week to see his elderly father. “I can’t go back to Iran, and it’s possible I won’t be able to return here, a place that is like my second country,” he said.
Saleh Taghvaeian, 36, teaches agricultural water management at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, said he feared his wife would not be able to return from Iran after a visit.
In Cairo, five Iraqi passengers and one Yemeni were barred from boarding an EgyptAir flight to New York on Saturday, sources at Cairo airport said. Dutch airline KLM [AIRF.PA] said on Saturday it had refused carriage to the United States to seven passengers from predominately Muslim countries.
Canada’s WestJet Airlines said it turned back a passenger bound for the United States on Saturday in order to comply with the order. A spokeswoman did not say which country the passenger had come from.
At least three lawyers from the International Refugee Assistance Project were at the arrivals lounge at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, buried in their laptops and conference calls, photocopies of individuals’ U.S. visas on hand.
In Washington, the agencies charged with handling immigration and refugee issues grappled with how to interpret the measure. U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were not consulted on the executive order and in some cases only learned the details as they were made public.
At the State Department, a senior official said lawyers were working closely with their counterparts at Homeland Security to interpret the executive order, which allows entry to people affected by the order when it is in the “national interest.”
However, a federal law enforcement official said, “It’s unclear at this point what the threshold of national interest is.”
Senior administration officials said it would have been “reckless” to broadcast details of the order in advance of new security measures. The officials told reporters that Homeland Security now has guidance for airlines.
They dismissed as “ludicrous” the notion that the order amounted to a “Muslim ban.” Afghanistan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Oman, Tunisia and Turkey were Muslim-majority countries not included, an official said.
Since it was announced on Friday, enforcement of the order was spotty and disorganized.
Travelers were handled differently at different points of entry and immigration lawyers were advising clients to change their destination to the more lenient airports, she said. Houston immigration lawyer Yegani said officials denied travelers with dual Canadian and Iranian citizenship from boarding planes in Canada to the United States.
The order seeks to prioritize refugees fleeing religious persecution. In a television interview, Trump said the measure was aimed at helping Christians in Syria.
Some legal experts said that showed the order was unconstitutional, as it would violate the U.S. right to freedom of religion. But others said the president and U.S. Congress have latitude to choose who receives asylum.
Lawyers from immigration organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union sued in federal court in Brooklyn on behalf of two Iraqi men, one a former U.S. government worker and the other the husband of a former U.S. security contractor.
The two men had visas to enter the United States but were detained on Friday night at Kennedy airport, hours after Trump’s executive order, the lawsuit said. One of the men, former U.S. Army interpreter, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, was later released.