Following an executive order signed late Friday, President Donald Trump on Saturday launched a sweeping attack on the travel rights of individuals from more than a half-dozen Muslim-majority countries, turning away travelers at multiple U.S. airports and leaving others stranded without answers — and without hope — across the world.
Trump’s order triggered waves of outrage and condemnation at home and abroad, prompting thousands of protesters to flood several American airports and ultimately culminating in a stay issued by a federal district judge in New York City on the deportation of people who were being detained by immigration officials. Similar stays were issued by judges in Washington state, Massachusetts, and Virginia.
The administration’s assault on civil liberties explicitly targeted the world’s most vulnerable populations — refugees and asylum seekers fleeing devastating wars — as well as young people with student visas pursuing an education in the United States, green card holders with deep roots in the country, and a number of citizens of countries not included in the ban. It also impacted American children traveling with, or waiting to meet, their non-citizen parents.
With an estimated 500,000 people in the crosshairs, Trump’s order was carried out swiftly and sowed confusion among the nation’s immigration and homeland security agencies — which were excluded from the drafting process and were scrambling to understand how to implement it, according to media reports and two government officials who spoke to The Intercept.
“We are violating international law.”
Days before the executive order was signed, reports began to emerge that valid visa holders were suddenly being prevented from re-entering the country after taking trips abroad. A senior U.S. immigration official, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, confirmed to The Intercept that the rash of unusual student visa revocations began roughly a week before the official order was signed.
Many of the stories the official heard about were anecdotal. Others, however, the official was able to review via internal Department of Homeland Security monitoring systems. While visas are revoked every day with little explanation afforded to those affected, the backgrounds of the individuals in these cases raised no red flags, the official said. On the contrary, the impacted individuals whose files the official reviewed included a young mother of a U.S. citizen child and students at some of the nation’s top universities who had been publicly recognized for their outstanding achievement. These students had already undergone rigorous U.S. government vetting before being admitted to the country, and had only traveled abroad briefly over their winter break.
The Intercept has independently verified two of these stories by speaking to those denied entry, who asked that their names not be used because they are attempting to appeal the decisions.
“The visa terminations struck me as unusual given that in the cases that I observed, nearly all of them had significant presence in the United States before the ban,” the official told The Intercept. “More disturbing, in some cases the individuals were allowed to board flights for the United States not knowing their visas had been terminated. They were only informed when they attempted to use their visas to seek admission and were denied. Even though they were ignorant of the termination, they were still charged with violating U.S. immigration law and given a five-year ban to future admission.”
By the time Trump traveled to the Department of Homeland Security to trumpet the signing of his first anti-immigrant executive order Wednesday, the immigration official had personally reviewed four visa revocation cases that seemed to be out of the ordinary. In addition to young people with passports belonging to countries later targeted in Trump’s executive order, at least two were traveling on Jordanian passports. All were denied entry to the United States. In one case, the visa of an Ivy League medical student was revoked by Customs and Border Protection while he was in the air from a European layover to the U.S.
It’s unclear whether the visa revocations last week were related to the subsequent ban. “But the timing of the revocations indicates that CBP supervisors felt sufficiently empowered to use their discretion to deny admission and cancel the visas in these cases,” the immigration official said.
The students repatriated earlier this week were also charged with violating U.S. immigration law — despite their valid visas — much in the same manner as some of those who were denied entry on Saturday, after the ban kicked in.
In another case the immigration official reviewed, a Syrian woman traveling to the U.S. from a third country on Saturday was denied entry and told she had to return to her port of origin. After consulting immigration attorneys volunteering at the airport, the woman — along with several other students, tourists, and business visitors — formally requested “humanitarian parole,” which allows temporary entry in emergency situations. When they were all denied that, she requested asylum, explaining that she did not have residency in the third country she had flown from and feared returning to Syria.
She was told she was not eligible to request asylum and that she had no choice but to return to her airport of origin, and then was walked to her gate. A lawyer she had briefly been able to communicate with told the immigration official that the woman was later made to sign a paper stating that she understood she had violated immigration law.
“A bedrock of refugee and asylum law is the concept of non-refoulement — not returning an individual to a place where they will be harmed,” the immigration official told The Intercept. Under international law, the United States is required to screen applicants to ensure they will not face persecution if returned to their countries, a process known as “credible fear screening.”
“Asylum law requires CBP officers to affirmatively ask if an applicant fears return when placing them into expedited removal,” the immigration official said. “By pressuring them to simply get on a plane without going into formal removal proceedings, they are violating our obligations under the refugee convention.”
“We are violating international law.”
“We really are still learning the impact of the order.”
Questions, fear, and confusion ran deep on Saturday — not only among those directly impacted by the ban but also by those trying to help them. “We are in the same boat as everyone else trying to determine and understand the meaning of the provisions in the executive order,” said Steve Letourneau, CEO of the Catholic Charities Maine Refugee and Immigration Services, the primary provider of refugee resettlement services in the state. “We really are still learning the impact of the order.”
Refugee and immigrant advocates were not the only ones scrambling to cope with the impact of the order — many immigration officials tasked with enforcing it were also at a loss. On Saturday, reports emerged that the Trump administration denied the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice input on the drafting of the order. While the visa revocations described by the immigration official we interviewed suggest that some CBP officials had indications of what was coming, there were also reports that even among career immigration and State Department officials, “nobody has any idea what is going on,” NBC News reported.
A State Department official confirmed this account to The Intercept. “De facto, we were not consulted, not how we’d normally be consulted. We had less than a day to review vague details,” said the official, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “This normally takes weeks of conversation. This EO took hours, and we never, never saw the final draft.”
“The ban took everyone by surprise,” the official added. “We’ve known things were in the works all week, but have basically been in the dark.”
“We honestly don’t know what is going to happen,” said the immigration official. “The EOs are extremely vague and some of our talk is based upon worst case scenarios. We have heard rumors coming from upper DHS echelons, but nothing concrete.”
The enormity of the executive order — slated to affect hundreds of thousands of people as well as severely impact the United States’ relationships with several countries — seemed to indicate it was written with little appreciation of the workings of the system it sought to undo.
“I think the government hasn’t had a full chance to think about this,” said Judge Ann Donnelly, who issued an emergency stay in response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and other organizations and ordered the government to provide a list of names of the people affected. That stay — the first win in what will inevitably be many legal battles to come — only applies to people currently in the United States or in transit to the country.
“She has her visa, she has everything. We even paid for her green card to come here.”
While reports multiplied of airport detentions and forced repatriations, so too did stories of panic and heartbreak among families who found themselves suddenly separated and desperate for information on when they’d be able to see their loved ones again.
Anfal Hussain was among the worried and the waiting pacing the terminals at JFK airport in New York City as the implications of Trump’s order became increasingly clear. “It’s my mom,” Hussain told The Intercept, explaining that her mother had flown from Iraq to join her daughters in the U.S. that morning. “She was in the air when Trump was like, ‘No one is allowed to visit the United States,’” Hussain said. “She has her visa, she has everything. We even paid for her green card to come here. And we’re both citizens, me and my sister.”
Hussain said her sister was able to speak to their mother briefly after she landed Saturday morning. She was crying and scared, Hussain said. “She doesn’t really speak English,” she added, and it was her first time traveling to the U.S. Hussain explained that her mother’s husband had passed away recently and she had no one left in Baghdad, a city increasingly riven by violence nearly a decade and a half after the U.S. invasion.
“She wanted to be with us,” Hussain said. “She wanted to be with her daughters.”
As the wide-ranging scope of the executive order became clear, immigration attorneys and advocates, as well as universities, issued warnings to citizens of the banned countries not to leave the United States. CLEAR, a New York-based group that is offering free legal advice to those impacted by the ban, circulated a fact sheet explaining how people in the country on different immigration statuses would be impacted if they left. It also warned green card holders denied entry not to sign any forms at the border abandoning their permanent residency.
But even as protesters in airports across the country broke into jubilation at the news of the stay, some people at those airports continued to be denied entry and, in some cases, were still threatened with forcible removal.
Although DHS issued a statement saying it would comply with the court orders, at Los Angeles International Airport, Sara Yarjani, an Iranian citizen, was told by CBP officials she had to board a flight to Copenhagen, despite the nationwide stay and against the protests of lawyers and two U.S. congresswomen who were present. The representatives, Rep. Judy Chu and Rep. Nanette Barragan, asked over the phone to meet with CBP officials, who refused. When asked who they were reporting to, the officials said “Donald J. Trump,” then hung up on them.
The Intercept was not able to confirm whether Yarjani was on the flight when it took off or whether she remained detained at the airport.
While nationals of seven countries — Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — have been targeted for exclusion so far, lawyers say that number could soon increase. Trump’s order calls for a 30-day review period in which the secretary of state and the director of national intelligence will compile “information needed for adjudications and a list of countries that do not provide adequate information.”
“The executive order is drafted in a manner that anticipates the extension of the ban. It’s clear that the White House expects that this is going to affect more people and more countries going forward,” Gadeir Abbas, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights attorney, told The Intercept. “There is a lot of ambiguity in the language used in the order — and executive power thrives on ambiguity.”
A section of the order also calls for the suspension of visas and “other immigration benefits” to nationals of targeted countries. Abbas said this reference to non-visa immigration benefits indicates a likely intention on the part of the Trump administration to target green card holders already in the United States.
“The changes in this order are not limited to border crossings. The text indicates that restrictions can also apply to immigration benefits such as green card renewal for those who are already inside the country,” Abbas said. “You could be a green card holder for 20 years and be prevented from renewing your documents — this is something that would impact a huge number of people.”
On Saturday, the State Department also confirmed that dual nationals of other countries would be subject to the ban on entry. A number of dual Iranian-Canadian citizens have already been prevented from boarding flights into the United States or were sent back after landing there, The Intercept has learned.
But while there are no official accounts on the number of people impacted who were traveling when the ban took effect, the impact on those temporarily outside the country is likely exponentially larger. The stay does not apply to them, and it’s unclear how many people were stranded outside the country after their visas and green cards were suddenly revoked.
A Texas resident named Stephanie Felten who contacted The Intercept said that her sister-in-law, an Iranian green card holder who has lived in Chicago for over a decade, was stranded in Iran after traveling there last week to visit family. With her in Iran is her 3-year-old daughter, an American citizen, who now has no way to return to the United States with her mother. Iran has promised a reciprocal ban on American citizens traveling there, effectively making it impossible for the child to see her father or the rest of her family.
“Nobody is providing any answers right now,” said Felten. “We’re just trying to confirm what we’re hearing. You can read the executive order and try to make determinations, but then news breaks that even people that are dual citizens are being turned away. Everyone is unsure where to turn.”
“My family have become refugees from my country.”
Have you been affected by President Trump’s travel ban? Do you know someone who has been turned away while attempting to return to the United States? The Intercept wants to hear your story. Please write to our reporters.
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Lynn Dombek, Spencer Woodman, and Leighton Woodhouse contributed reporting to this article.