WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump’s sweeping ban on people seeking refuge in the United States and visitors from seven Muslim countries caused confusion and panic among travelers yesterday, with some turned back from US-bound flights. Some who were already in the air when Trump signed the executive order were detained on arrival, the New York Times reported. Immigration lawyers in New York sued to block the order, also saying numerous people have already been unlawfully detained.
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. “I’m establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America. Don’t want them here,” Trump said. “We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people,” he said.
Trump’s executive order specifically says no visas will be issued for 90 days to migrants or visitors from the seven Muslim-majority countries. It also bars Syrian refugees from the United States indefinitely, or until Trump himself decides that they no longer pose a threat. “This is big stuff,” he declared at the Pentagon, after signing the executive order entitled “Protection of the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States.” Trump’s order also cut the number of refugees the US plans to resettle in fiscal year 2017 – which is calculated from last October – from 110,000 to 50,000.
The action prompted fury from Arab travelers in the Middle East and North Africa who said it was humiliating and discriminatory. It drew widespread criticism from US 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, according to Gillian Christensen, a Homeland Security spokeswoman. It was unclear how many green card holders would be affected, but exceptions can be made on a case-by-case basis. 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. Immigration lawyers worked through the night to help stranded travelers and enforcement at entry points was uneven.
“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 will not be able to return from Iran after a visit. “In Iran they’re not being allowed to get on the airplane,” he said.
In Tehran, two travel agencies told AFP they had been instructed by Etihad Airways, Emirates and Turkish Airlines not to sell US tickets or allow Iranians holding American visas to board US-bound flights. Trump’s move angered one of Iran’s most popular actresses, Taraneh Alidoosti who stars in the Oscar-nominated “The Salesman”. She said she would boycott next month’s Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani did not comment directly on the ban yesterday, but criticized Trump, saying that now was “not the time to build walls between nations”. Iran’s foreign ministry said it would “respond in kind after the insulting decision of the United States concerning Iranian nationals” until the measure is lifted. It said the decision was “illegal, illogical and contrary to international rules”. More than a million Iranians live in the United States.
In Cairo, five Iraqi passengers and one Yemeni were barred from boarding an EgyptAir flight to New York yesterday, sources at Cairo airport said. Dutch airline KLM said yesterday it had refused carriage to the United States to seven passengers from predominately Muslim countries. “We would have liked to have had them fly with us, but it would not have made much sense because they would have been denied entry” to the United States, KLM spokesman Manel Vrijenhoek told AFP.
Qatar Airways, which flies to around 15 American cities, said it would abide by the new regulations, adding however that passengers who have “the proper documentation” will be able to fly. An alert on its website said citizens of the seven barred countries could travel to the US if they have permanent residency there. Government officials and their immediate family are exempt from the travel restrictions along with representatives of international organizations, the Gulf carrier said.
Sudan called the decision to ban entry of its citizens very unfortunate in light of “historic steps” just weeks earlier to lift US sanctions for cooperation on combating terrorism. A 34-year-old Sudanese man who won the US Green Card lottery said he was worried he would be forbidden entry. “If I’m barred…this will destroy my life because I resigned from my work in Sudan and was preparing to settle in America,” he said.
At least three lawyers from the International Refugee Assistance Project were at the arrivals lounge at New York City’s John F Kennedy International Airport’s Terminal 4, buried in their laptops and conference calls, photocopies of individuals’ US visas on hand. “Just because Trump signed something at 6 pm yesterday, things are coming to a crashing halt,” said Mana Yegani, an immigration lawyer in Houston. “It’s scary.” She and fellow lawyers worked all night fielding calls from travelers with student and worker visas who were being denied entry into the United States and ordered on flights back to the Muslim-majority countries.
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, said Yegani, who works with the American Immigration Lawyers Association. 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 carve-out showed the order was unconstitutional, as it would violate the US right to freedom of religion. But others said the president and US Congress have latitude to choose who receives asylum.
Lawyers from numerous immigration organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union sued in federal court in Brooklyn on behalf of two Iraqi men, one a former US government worker and the other the husband of a former US 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.
Green card holders
Green card holders were also being stopped and questioned for several hours. Officials also denied travelers with dual Canadian and Iranian citizenship from boarding planes in Canada that were headed to the United States, Yegani said. “These are people that are coming in legally. They have jobs here and they have vehicles here,” Yegani said. Those with visas from Muslim-majority countries have gone through background checks with US authorities, Yegani noted. Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway reaffirmed the president’s decision in a Twitter post yesterday. “@POTUS is a man of action and impact. Promises made, promises kept. Shock to the system. And he’s just getting started,” she tweeted.
The order laid the way for what Trump has pledged will be the “extreme vetting” of visa applicants’ backgrounds – with some exceptions made for members of “religious minorities”, a caveat many see as a way to apply favorable treatment to Christians from majority-Muslim states. “‘Extreme vetting’ is just a euphemism for discriminating against Muslims,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Romero said Trump’s order breached the US constitution’s ban on religious discrimination by choosing countries with Muslim majorities for tougher treatment.
Ahmed Rehab, director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told AFP his group would mount legal challenges to fight the order “tooth and nail”. “It is targeting people based on their faith and national origin, and not on their character or their criminality,” he told AFP. On Friday evening, Abed Ayoub of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said he had fielded about 100 queries from people anxious about the order, which he said he believed could affect traveling green card holders, students, people coming to the United States for medical care and others. “It’s chaos,” Ayoub said. – Agencies