Trump Travel Ban Causes Chaos at U.S. Airports, as Homeland Security Buckles Under Strain

"The federal government needs to get its s@#t together," Illinois's governor tweeted, as travelers were crowded together at airports for coronavirus checks.

A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employee adjusts her face mask in between screening passengers entering through a checkpoint at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Saturday, March 14, 2020, in New York.  White collar workers trying to avoid contagion during the viral pandemic can work from home or call in sick if they experience symptoms of the virus, but that's not an option for millions of other workers who routinely come into contact with the public. While tech companies have implemented work-from-home policies, only 29% of U.S. workers have that option, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
International departures at American airports like John F. Kennedy were calm on Saturday. International arrivals were not. Photo: Kathy Willens/AP

There was chaos at international arrivals halls in airports across the United States on Saturday, as President Donald Trump’s hastily ordered European travel ban took effect, and passengers were forced to endure long waits in crowded spaces as federal agents appear to have been overwhelmed by orders to screen travelers for coronavirus.

While journalists had no access to the secure parts of airports under the control of Homeland Security, travelers arriving from Europe shared updates and images of huge crowds packed into narrow passageways at airports in Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, New York, and Washington, D.C.

It occurred to many passengers, and loved ones waiting for them, that their waits of four to six hours in packed terminals meant that the federal government was responsible for forcing Americans essentially ordered home by the president into conditions that were the exact opposite of the recommended guidance for stopping the spread of infection.

The images of packed American airports stood in stark contrast to scenes from Italy, where even people waiting to buy masks at a local pharmacy in Siena on Friday maintained a distance of at least six feet from the person in front of them.

Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, was outraged by the crowding at O’Hare and put the blame squarely on the “incompetence” of the president and Homeland Security’s failure to deploy additional Customs and Border Patrol agents.

J.B. Pritzker, the governor of Illinois, tweeted at Trump that the passengers forced to crowd together were under federal jurisdiction.

“The federal government,” Pritzker added bluntly, “needs to get its s@#t together. NOW.”

Airport officials in Chicago confirmed that the long delays were caused by a lack of federal agents to carry out the health checks mandated by the president three days ago. “We’ve strongly encouraged our federal partners to increase staffing to meet demand,” a message on O’Hare’s official Twitter feed read.

At John F. Kennedy International airport in New York, one traveler reported “only six of the 60 available processing stations open” at customs.

“DHS is aware of the long lines for passengers who are undergoing increased medical screening requirements,” Trump’s acting Homeland Security secretary, Chad Wolf acknowledged on Twitter. “Right now we are working to add additional screening capacity and working with the airlines to expedite the process.”

“We will be increasing capacity,” Wolf promised, without explaining why no one thought that adequate staffing might be necessary before the health of thousands of Americans was put at risk on Saturday.

The latest failing by the federal government Trump nominally heads, but appears unable to actually run, is particularly galling since this is not the first poorly thought-out travel ban he has imposed that prompted chaos at America’s airports.

And there was anecdotal evidence that all of the waiting was very close to pointless.

“The screening consisted of taking down our information on a form and taking our temperatures,” one passenger in Washington reported after two hours of waiting in line.

Another, who received a message during her flight from London to Dallas that the president had suddenly added the United Kingdom to the list of European countries travel would be restricted from, described the screening she and thousands of others waited so long for as far from rigorous.

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