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Border agents defy judges' orders targeting Trump travel ban, lawyers say

The Guardian logo The Guardian 1/29/2017 Edward Helmore in New York

Lawyers gather to discuss how to gain access to a detainee held under a travel ban imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order, at Washington Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, U.S. January 28, 2017. © REUTERS/Yeganeh Torbati Lawyers gather to discuss how to gain access to a detainee held under a travel ban imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order, at Washington Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, U.S. January 28, 2017. Customs and Border Protection agents defied the orders of federal judges regarding Donald Trump’s travel bans on Sunday, according to attorneys who rallied popular protests around the country in support of detained refugees and travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries.

“Rogue customs and Border Patrol agents continue to try to get people on to planes,” Becca Heller, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, told reporters on Sunday. “A lot of people have been handcuffed, a lot of people who don’t speak English are being coerced into taking involuntary departures.”

Agents told attorneys “it’s not going to happen” at Dulles international Airport in Virginia on Sunday, as they tried to see detainees, according to Damon Silvers, special counsel at AFL-CIO, one of the legal groups trying to help visa holders in detention or threatened with deportation. Late Saturday night, federal judges in New York, Virginia and Massachusetts ordered a temporary halt to the president’s deportation of people who had arrived in the US with valid visas.

The New York judge did not rule on whether Trump’s orders were constitutional, but her courtroom was packed with civil rights advocates and protesters who spilled out into the streets of Brooklyn, where thousands demonstrated.

At the height of protests at John F Kennedy international airport in New York on Saturday, about 5,000 protesters swarmed terminal four after an estimated 17 passengers, including green-card holders, were detained for hours due to their country of origin. Several remained in custody at the airport on Sunday morning.

Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the US Senate, posted on Twitter that homeland security secretary John Kelly had assured him the court order would be followed. “All those still in airports expected to be admitted,” Schumer tweeted. The DHS said in a statement that it would “enforce all of the president’s executive orders” but also that officials “will comply with judicial orders”.

In New York, lawyers described official resistance to requests for basic information on those being held.

“We continue to face Border Patrol’s noncompliance and chaos at airports around the country,” said Marielena Hincapie, director of the National Immigration Law Center. Officials, she said, were “kafkaesque” in their confused responses, and Trump’s order “has already caused irrevocable harm, it has already caused chaos”.

Heller said some border agents were trying to force detainees to surrender green cards, while other, “good Samaritan” agents were sympathetic to travellers, protesters and attorneys. “There is no method to this madness,” Heller said. She added that various attorneys had been told by agents: “Call Donald Trump.”

Lee Gelernt, the attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who argued in Brooklyn on Saturday night, said lawyers were trying to record incidents of noncompliance so they could go back to court. “The judge will certainly want to know if her orders are not being complied with,” he said. “Eventually you could get to something like contempt, but I think we’re a long way from that.”

Gelernt said that Saturday’s suits were the “first step” in a broader challenge to Trump’s orders. “We have to say no to discrimination based on religion.”

Authorities in Atlanta and Chicago had released some detainees, she added, while San Francisco and Los Angeles had only partially complied.

Heller said in one case, an Iranian Fulbright scholar, who did not give permission to use her name, had been forced on to an Air Ukraine flight at JFK – hours after agents had received the court order to stop.

“The flight started taxiing away from the gate,” Heller said. “She was on the phone with us and stood up and asked to get off the flight; the crew just ignored her.” The attorneys made desperate calls to higher-level officials, and the plane was eventually turned around on the tarmac and the woman returned to detention.

Mitra Vardei, a friend of the student, said she had heard conflicting information. “She is going to be deported, then we hear there is a ban and she won’t be deported.”

An estimated 400 lawyers have signed up to represent detainees, and dozens flocked to airports, many with signs in Arabic and Farsi to alert relatives that attorneys could help them find lost loved ones. From Saturday into Sunday, hundreds attended rallies against Trump’s “extreme vetting order” at 29 cities and airports across the country.

New York mayor Bill de Blasio warned that the travel ban could be “the first step towards a Muslim registry”. He said detention without due process should be “chilling” to Americans.

Immigrant advocacy groups said the protests Saturday that were staged at US airports were initially spontaneous, then coalesced through social media, with help from people such as the documentary-maker Michael Moore: “Everybody in NYC area – head to JFK Terminal 4 NOW! Big anti-Trump protest forming out of nowhere! Ppl mobilizing against Trump’s Muslim ban.”

The impromptu protests were followed by more formal efforts that, as in previous civil rights protests, had public and private companies articulating anti-government positions.

The ride-share service Lyft promised a $1m donation to the ACLU, and a union representing New York City taxi drivers, many of whom are immigrants, announced an hour-long halt to pickups at the airport.

“We cannot be silent,” the group said on Twitter. “We go to work to welcome people to a land that once welcomed us. We will not be divided.”

Executives at major tech companies that rely on foreign skilled labour also expressed concern. In a memo to staff, Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai said it had been “painful to see the personal cost” on our colleagues. The tech giant’s USSR-born co-founder, Sergei Brin, attended the protest at San Francisco’s airport, telling reporters he was there in a personal capacity, “because I am a refugee”.

Apple head Tim Cook said in an email to employees that he had contacted the White House to explain the “negative effect” of the restrictions, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, an Indian immigrant, described in an online post “the positive impact that immigration has on our company, for the country, and for the world”.

The attorneys urged Congress to act. “We’re really in a crisis mode, a constitutional crisis mode in our country,” Hincapie said. “This is one of those all hands on deck moment.”

Yet the Republican leaders of Congress were relatively mute over the weekend. Through a spokeswoman, House speaker Paul Ryan said he supported the ban and does not consider it a religious test. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who like Ryan criticized Trump’s plan for a Muslim ban while the businessman was a candidate, told ABC its legality should be left to the courts.

“The President has a lot of latitude to try to secure the country and I’m not going to make a blanket criticism of this effort,” McConnell said. “It’s going to be decided in the courts as to whether or not this has gone too far.”


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