Trump's travel ban leads to immigrant detainments at Texas airports

As in airports across the country, President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel from certain countries in the Middle East reverberated at Texas airports on Saturday.

Though a federal judge has temporarily blocked the deportation of any travelers with valid visas, Trump’s ban on the entry of individuals from seven predominantly Muslim countries led to the detainment of a Chevon engineer in Houston, a 70-year-old Iranian woman headed to meet her son in Dallas and several others in the state throughout the day.

The migratory chaos stemmed from an executive order Trump signed Friday that, in part, restricts travel from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen for 90 days — reportedly even for legal permanent residents returning to the United States. As international flights landed at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport north of Houston and at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, individuals were detained by immigration officials because of Trump’s order.

At least 11 individuals were detained in Dallas and another was held in Houston. An Iraqi national headed to Houston where his wife and young son live was detained in New York.

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A lawsuit involving the Iraqi national, Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi, ultimately led to a temporary stay issued late Saturday by U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly in New York, which prevented the deportations of people detained under Trump’s order on their way into the United States.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations filed the lawsuit in New York early Saturday on behalf Alshawi and another Iraqi national. Alshawi was detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport despite being issued a valid visa earlier this month to reunite with his wife and 7-year-old son in the United States.

Alshawi’s wife had worked for a U.S. contractor but fled Iraq with their son after being targeted by insurgents, according to the court filing. She applied for refugee status for her and their son, and they are now legal permanent residents in Houston.

While Alshawi and the others with valid visas are safe for now from immediate deportation, family members the detainees spent hours waiting for their loved ones to be released.

In Dallas, Behcad Honarjou was waiting for his 70-year-old mother to be released after arriving at 9:30 a.m. She recently obtained a visa to visit him but was denied entry once she arrived at the airport.

“I’m still at the airport, and I don’t know what to do,” Honarjou said minutes before the federal judge ruled that detainees with valid visas could not be deported. “She is on bad health conditions right now.”

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The detainees in Dallas were among those who “got caught up” in Trump’s executive order, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings told reporters Saturday evening. Before the New York judge had blocked their deportations, Rawlings had said the detainees were told they were not getting into the United States and were going to be sent back on the next available flights.

Local news outlets reported that a few detainees were released by immigration officials earlier in the day. Rawlings’ office announced 11 individuals were still detained at the airport as of 8 p.m.

The fallout from Trump’s executive order was not limited to those visiting the United States. In Houston, an Iranian citizen who works as engineer for Chevron was detained for several hours after returning from Iran where he was visiting his father who recently underwent heart surgery.

The engineer, whose first name is Majid, took the first flight back to Houston after rumors about Trump’s executive order reached Iran, according to his attorney Mana Yegani. Despite his legal permanent status and long-time residency in Houston, he was questioned by immigration officials who recorded his responses to several questions and checked his phone and social media accounts.

When his plane was taxiing, I spoke with him briefly and said, ‘Listen, they may put you in handcuffs, they may put you in interrogation. Do not under any circumstances give up your green card,” Yegani said, noting that most immigrants traveling back to the United States wouldn’t have received the same guidance.

“Generally, when people travel they don’t have an attorney on standby,” she added.

The scenes at Texas airports — where dozens of protestors had gathered through the day — were repeated at airports across the country where many travelers were blindsided by Trump’s executive order. The administration has firmly held that the travel ban is meant to increase national security, and officials stood by the policy on Saturday despite the detainments.

But pointing to the detention of individuals with valid visas, immigration advocates and some local officials lambasted Trump’s order. In Dallas, Rawlings said the policy “purports to be a response to national security” but was proving to be harmful to individuals across the country. 

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“Let’s remember that this is not just a political issue,” Rawlings said on Saturday. “It’s a human issue — it’s a human issue where families are being kept apart.”

While airport detainees reportedly did not include refugees traveling to the United States, Trump’s executive order — which also indefinitely bans the entry of Syrian refugees and halts all refugee admissions for 120 days — also caused the cancellation of travel plans for thousands of refugees, according to refugee resettlement officials.

More than 2,000 refugees were booked to travel the United States in the coming week, said Melanie Nezer, vice president of the refugee resettlement agency HIAS.

Trump’s order is expected to keep thousands of refugees from being resettled in Texas. More than 600 refugees fleeing violence and persecution were resettled in Texas since Jan. 1., and refugee resettlement agencies were expecting to help thousands more start new lives in the state this year.

About 10 percent of refugees admitted into the country each year are typically resettled in Texas. But the total number of refugees resettled in the state is expected to be much lower compared to previous years in light of the Trump administration decision to also significantly reduce the total number of refugees allowed in the United States.