The 13 people detained at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport under an executive order signed Friday by President Donald Trump that temporarily bans citizens of seven predominantly Muslim nations from entering the U.S. had all been released by Sunday evening.
It appeared that a handful of other international travelers had also drawn concerns while they were being processed by customs officials. In that latter cluster were a mother described as a legal permanent resident from Sudan and her 11-month-old U.S.-born baby.
Alia Salem of the DFW Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said she witnessed the reunions of nine detainees. Among them were two grandmothers and other senior citizens.
She credited the efforts of hundreds of protesters and at least 100 lawyers, as well as religious leaders and elected officials who had stepped in to help.
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“This tells me that this is what America is all about,” Salem said Sunday evening.
She added that more of the same will be needed to protect the rights of others who might be targeted by the executive order.
“This is going to be a day-to-day challenge,” she said.
Airport officials say upward of 800 people gathered at the airport Sunday to protest the detention, with many holding signs and chanting “Let them go!” It marked the second day of protests at the airport.
Other protests were held elsewhere in Texas, including particularly large gatherings in Houston and at the Austin airport.
Douha Abbasher, 19, of Euless and Mohamed Gasin Elseed, 19, of Rockwall said their grandmother was among those detained and then released Sunday.
“She was lost,” Elseed said. “She didn’t know what was going on.”
Austin Bassil, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Iraq, said his 36-year-old brother was detained Sunday morning when he arrived at DFW Airport from Jordan.
His brother obtained permission to come to this country under a special immigrant visa typically given to allies of U.S. government or military forces. Bassil’s brother worked for the U.S. Embassy in Iraq.
“This all happened in midair,” Bassil said. “It feels wrong. I don’t know what will happen.”
The White House on Sunday tried to tamp down concerns about Trump’s sweeping immigration order in the face of widespread protests, as some Republicans in Congress urged him to proceed with caution in the face of legal pushback.
During a round of Sunday show interviews, Trump’s aides stressed that just a small portion of travelers had been affected by the order. The aides also reversed course and said that citizens of those countries who hold permanent U.S. residency “green cards” will not be barred from re-entering the country, as officials had previously said.
DFW was one of more than 30 places across the nation where peaceful protests were staged Saturday night and Sunday.
I stand with those who desire to see that our nation can protect the safety of its citizens while remaining as a refuge for those who are persecuted and seeking a better life through legal immigration.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins spoke to the protesters Sunday afternoon, telling them their actions are making a difference.
“Keep up what you are doing,” he told a diverse crowd of women, men and children who waved signs in support of refugees and immigrants.
“What is happening to them is not what America stands for,” Jenkins said.
In a prepared statement, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said she stands “with those who desire to see that our nation can protect the safety of its citizens while remaining as a refuge for those who are persecuted and seeking a better life through legal immigration.”
“As a community, Fort Worth is committed to being compassionate in our approach to those fleeing troubled parts of the world and will continue to tangibly partner with our refugee resettlement agencies across the city that meet those needs,” the statement said.
Fear and uncertainty
Osama Alolabi tried to sleep early Sunday, sitting in a chair wrapped in a blanket at a snack bar, his head buried in a shaggy lime-green pillow.
About 6:15 a.m. his cellphone rang, awaking him in the international arrival area of DFW Airport.
“I got to sleep about 5:30,” said Alolabi, 20, a junior at Southern Methodist University.
He was waiting on his parents, who had been detained since arriving Saturday morning.
Alolabi is from Syria and his parents came to DFW to visit him.
“I’m really terrified about my family,” said Alolabi, who last saw his parents in August. “That’s all I can think about, is their safety.”
Esmaeil Dehghan, a research scientist at UT Southwestern Medical Center, came to Texas to follow his passion for science. The Iran native said he was in a desperate state of uncertainty Sunday, waiting for the release of his mother-, father- and sister-in-law. The family members were coming to visit from Iran on Saturday. Their flight landed at 9 a.m., but they never exited the airport gate.
“We were here at the time,” he said. “We just waited for five hours.”
There was no information, he said. “It was really a disappointing situation. We don’t know what is going to happen.”
His relatives were traveling with valid visas, Dehghan said.
“We are trying to improve people’s health,” he said. “We have a passion for science. This is the best country for research.
“We are just desperate. We love this country. We love the people here. We are just not sure if they will accept us.”
The situation was reminiscent of The Terminal, a 2004 movie starring Tom Hanks that follows the plight of an eastern immigrant who is caught in political red tape and unable to leave JFK Airport, which became his sanctuary.
U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, said Saturday night that the detainees were provided cots, blankets, food and water, in an effort to make their stay as comfortable as possible.
But he clearly was not happy with Trump’s order, saying the decision to “suspend entry from Muslim-majority countries is wholly un-American and challenges our country’s humanitarian leadership.”
Trump signed the order — which bans the entry of refugees from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — on Friday, saying it’s designed to “keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America.”
Sunday’s developments came a day after a federal judge in New York issued an emergency order temporarily barring the U.S. from deporting people from the seven majority-Muslim nations subject to Trump’s 90-day travel ban.
The Homeland Security Department said Sunday that that court ruling would not affect the overall implementation of the White House order.
“President Trump’s Executive Orders remain in place — prohibited travel will remain prohibited, and the U.S. government retains its right to revoke visas at any time if required for national security or public safety. President Trump’s Executive Order affects a minor portion of international travelers, and is a first step towards reestablishing control over America’s borders and national security,” the release said.
But it was unclear whether the measures would prevent attacks on American soil. The directive did not address homegrown extremists already in America, a primary concern of federal law enforcement officials. And the list of countries in Trump’s order doesn’t include Saudi Arabia, where most of the 9-11 hijackers were from.
‘These are not terrorists’
Joanna Cattanach, a college journalism teacher and activist from Dallas, was among those protesting at DFW Saturday night. She had seen a Facebook post that people were being detained and came to show support.
“This is not what America does,” Cattanach said. “This is not what we are about. These are not terrorists, these are grandmothers.”
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings also weighed in, saying he was “deeply disturbed” by what happened at DFW and said on behalf of Dallas, “we’re sorry.”
Among those who were detained Saturday and later released were Neal Behgooy, of Plano, a U.S. citizen, was coming from Tehran, Iran, and his wife, Shima Sefddari, who has a green card. They had been visiting his wife’s mother.
They were detained and questioned for about five hours before being released.
Behgooy said he was surprised that officials didn’t allow for more time before acting on the executive order.
“I would expect for some kind of leeway. It caught us by surprise,” Behgooy said.
He said customs officials mostly questioned his wife, asking about her family, “how long we stayed, what we did while we were there.”
Behgooy said they were were hoping to bring his wife’s mother to the U.S., but “while in flight from Tehran to Frankfurt, Germany, she was denied, so they sent her back, and my wife was in tears.”
Staff writers Lee Williams and Mark David Smith contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press.