They all had other plans. Elaf and Anfal Hussain were going to finally tell their mother everything she’d missed in the seven years since they’d last seen her as teenagers. Ali Baker was going to decide on a honeymoon location with his fiance. U.S. Army Sgt Ali Alsaeedy was going to give his ailing, recently widowed mother a big hug for the first time in five years.
Instead, they were all in Terminal 4 of JFK International Airport on Saturday, as their relatives sat detained for hours by the immigration officials. They say their family members have not slept or been offered food or water, and they were only allowed one phone call upon landing.
Ali Baker, a U.S. citizen from Baghdad who was expecting the arrival of his fiance Noor, waited at the airport for more than 12 hours, arguing with border patrol agents and Port Authority police. When he finally found a supervisor to speak to, then answer was curt: “we’re just following orders.”
Noor was finally released from JFK Sunday after she was detained for more than 24 hours.
Those orders stem from President Trump’s Executive Action Friday night to prohibit entrance from any of seven Muslim-majority countries, even by travelers with a valid visa or green card. Late Saturday night, after lawyers with the ACLU and the International Refugee Assistance Project filed several habeus corpus suits, a federal court judge granted a stay on the deportation of immigrants currently stranded in airports, barring them from being sent back home immediately. That means that the travelers won’t be put on a flight out of the country immediately, but it’s no guarantee they’ll be released any time soon.
As hundreds of protesters gathered outside JFK’s Terminal 4, chanting “let them in!” and holding signs like “Never Forget,” the relatives of the detained gave statements to volunteer lawyers and marveled at how their loved ones could be in the same airport, yet so far away. The protests were organized by Make the Road NY, the National Partnership for New Americansm and the New York Immigration Coalition.
“It’s not fair, we’ve been waiting all these years to see her, and they tell us no?” says Anfal Hussain, 23. “We have freedom, we’re both citizens. they can’t treat us like this.” Hussain and her sister Elaf, 25, had been looking forward to seeing their Iraqi mother for the first time in seven years. The girls were teenagers last time they saw their mother — now, they fear, she’ll have to go back to Baghdad without even a hug. Elaf says the decision makes her feel “discriminated against.”
Sgt. Ali Alsaeedy, an active duty U.S. Army Sergeant currently stationed in Fort Bragg, had been petitioning for years to get both of his parents the proper paperwork to come to the U.S. from Baghdad. The paperwork was nearly in order when his father passed away in December. His mourning, 65-year old mother was stuck in detention, unable to see her son. “She was crying,” he said of his phone call with his detained mother, adding that her health is “not so good.” His mother has an IR5 immigrant visa, which means she’s essentially pre-approved for a green card as soon as she arrives on U.S. soil. He has not seen her in five years.
“I’m really supportive of any regulation to keep the people safe,” says Sgt. Alsaeedy, who serves with the 82nd Airborne. “But how many years are left of her life?”
Baker, who spent more than a day waiting for the release of his fiance Noor, says the couple has already booked their wedding venue in Connecticut and are deciding on honeymoon locations. Noor has her wedding dress among her luggage. “She’s crying, she hasn’t eaten in two days,” Baker says, adding that if Noor is sent back, she may have to re-apply for a visa all over again.
“This country’s built on immigrants. Everyone’s an immigrant except for Native Americans,” Baker says. “This is affecting people’s lives here.”
Some of the affected travelers asked before they boarded their flights if they would be allowed to enter the U.S. and were told they would be, according to Zahra Cheema, one of dozens of immigration lawyers who volunteered their time with the International Refugee Assistance Project Saturday. “They keep asking, ‘under what authority are we being detained,'” she said. “They never give a straight answer.”
“There’s no precedent for this,” she says.
For Sgt. Alsaeedy, nothing has changed about his devotion to the country he serves. But under his U.S. Army baseball cap, he is struggling to control his emotions about his mother’s detainment. “I have a lot of feelings,” he says. “I miss her so much.”