24 Hours at JFK: The Hour-by-Hour Account of Two Iraqis’ Detainment and Release

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Attorneys working at JFK on January 30, 2017, to aid arriving passengers who might be affected by Trump’s immigration order. Photo: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

Last Friday night, after a very long week, Mark Doss, a 29-year-old attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), was out to dinner with a couple of friends in Brooklyn, when he got a text. One of his clients from Iraq, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, had just landed at John F. Kennedy Airport with his wife and three children. Darweesh had spent much of the past decade working for the United States government, part of it as an interpreter for the 101st Airborne Division, in Baghdad and Mosul. The Darweeshes had flown from Baghdad to Istanbul, and on to New York, where Hameed’s wife and children had passed through border patrol without incident. Hameed, however, had been stopped. It had now been several hours, and no one had heard from him.

Earlier that day, lawyers at IRAP had been watching live so they could note the precise time — 4:42 p.m. — at which President Donald Trump signed an executive order instituting a ban on immigrants from seven predominately Muslim countries, including Iraq. IRAP had been preparing for the order all week, fearing it might be signed any day, and when a draft was released on Wednesday, they advised their clients to get on flights as soon as possible. For several, they sent letters via Viber and WhatsApp for them to present to border officials, with the lawyer’s phone number and an explanation of why they had well-founded fears that returning to their home country would be dangerous. They also advised clients that there was a chance they could be detained if the order was signed before they took off, and that it was their choice to decide whether getting to America was worth the risk. (All of them said that it was.)

The question of whether anyone in the air would be allowed in was an open one that had apparently been answered at JFK: The Darweeshes had landed around 6 p.m., just an hour after Trump had signed the order. Two hours later, another IRAP client from Iraq, Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi, who was connecting at JFK to meet his family in Texas, had landed and never emerged from customs. Around 11 p.m., two agents from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) approached Darweesh’s wife and children, who were anxiously waiting in the arrivals hall; the agents asked them to voluntarily come back into the customs area, seeming to have realized that in the uncertain aftermath of the order’s signing they had let through four members of a family but not the fifth, and were trying to re-detain Darweesh’s family. Jonathan Polonsky, an attorney from the firm Kilpatrick Townsend, who was representing Darweesh along with IRAP, had met the family at the airport with three students from the CUNY School of Law, and asked the CBP agent whether this was a request or an order. Told it was the former, at least for now, Polonsky advised the Darweeshes to get into a cab and leave the airport.

The detention of Darweesh and Alshawi, followed by the swift response from a group of lawyers, two members of the House of Representatives, and a spontaneous protest movement — all of them feeding off one another’s energy — helped launch a nationwide movement against President Trump’s ban and detentions across the country. By the time Doss arrived at the airport, along with Julie Kornfeld, another IRAP attorney, who had been at a friend’s birthday party, CBP officers had relocated Darweesh and Alshawi from Terminal 1, where they had arrived but which closed at midnight, to Terminal 4, with their hands restrained. The terminal was largely empty, save for passengers landing on late-arriving flights from Latin America and the West Coast. With no access to their client, and nowhere to turn, Doss walked over to the doors leading back to the customs area, where a CBP officer insisted that he step back. Doss asked to see his client, but was rejected. “Who is the person we need to talk to?” he asked a CBP official.

“Mr. President,” the official responded. “Call Mr. Trump.”

On Saturday morning, Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, whose district includes Chinatown, was preparing to attend an event marking the Lunar New Year when she got a call from Javier Valdés, the co-director of Make the Road New York, who reported the fear that several people at JFK might be deported and asked whether Velazquez could get to the airport and see what she might be able to do. Velazquez immediately got in a car and called Jerrold Nadler, who represents parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, who was planning to spend the morning at synagogue, to say a set of ritual mourning prayers for his recently deceased mother.

“Jerry, I’m going to JFK,” Velazquez says she told Nadler.

“I’m already in a cab,” Nadler said.

At the airport, Amy Rutkin, Nadler’s chief of staff, spotted Doss, Kornfield, and Lara Finkbeiner, another IRAP lawyer who had arrived that morning, sitting near a Dunkin’ Donuts in an array of untucked button-down shirts. (Finkbeiner is a close friend, and I’ve met Doss socially on several occasions.) The IRAP lawyers gave the representatives a rundown of the situation. They were being given no access to their clients, and there was some concern that Darweesh might be deported, or transferred to a facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where he would be administered a “credible fear interview,” to determine the level of danger he might face if the United States sent him back to Iraq. Shut out by the CBP officers they encountered, the lawyers had taken to cold-calling any phone number they could find for the agency. Eventually, they spoke with a supervisor at JFK who began offering sporadic updates on their clients. They had been able to speak to Darweesh by phone, briefly, at which point they told him not to sign any papers CBP presented him. At 5:33 that morning, several organizations, including IRAP and the ACLU, had filed a habeas corpus petition on behalf of Darweesh and Alshawi, hoping to put a stay on the executive order.

After 6 a.m., however, when the CBP shifts changed, the IRAP lawyers said that the new supervisor on duty declined to offer them any information and said they had to call the press office at the Homeland Security office in D.C., despite the fact that they weren’t members of the press, and no one was manning the phone on a Saturday morning anyway. “Well,” Nadler said. “Let’s go see what that’s about.”

Nadler and Velazquez approached the customs door Doss had unsuccessfully tried to enter early that morning. The doors were closed and couldn’t be opened from the outside, but as soon as an arriving passenger walked out, triggering the automatic door, the congresspeople stepped through to find a young CBP employee in glasses and blue latex gloves, for examining hundreds of passports a day. “These are two members of Congress,” Rutkin, Nadler’s chief of staff, said, holding up Velazquez’s and Nadler’s congressional IDs. The CBP officer wouldn’t let them through, and several more officers approached, one shouting, “Gotta go, Gotta go” and waving his arms for them to turn and leave, insisting they were blocking the doorway. Nadler and Velazquez stepped out of the door frame, but only far enough that the automatic door couldn’t close.

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Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

After several tense minutes, a CBP supervisor approached and agreed to speak with Nadler and Velazquez. She turned down their request to speak with the detainees, or to allow the lawyers to speak with them, claiming Darweesh and Alshawi had not yet entered the United States, and were thus not subject to due process. Courteous, but surprised to have been confronted by two members of Congress on a Saturday morning, she said the issue was a lack of guidance from Washington on what to do about people who were in transit when the law was put in place. It was Saturday, and they were having trouble getting through to anyone in D.C. “We are as much in the dark as everybody else,” she said. She also confirmed what the lawyers had suspected: In addition to Darweesh and Alshawi, ten other people were currently being held because of the order.

Nadler and Velazquez marched out of the terminal, and gave a press conference to the small gathering of reporters and protesters who had begun to congregate outside. As they wrapped up, Rutkin got a call from the CBP supervisor: Darweesh was going to be released. When he emerged in a baggage area to the side of the terminal, he had been in custody for 19 hours. The first thing he asked, putting his hands behind his back as if they were being restrained, was, “Why did this happen to me?” He couldn’t stop crying as both Velazquez and Nadler gave him hugs. Eventually Doss started rubbing his back and began speaking with him in Arabic. “It’s been a long trip, and I know it’s been very difficult, but you’re free now,” Doss told him. Several CBP officials approached the group and demanded that they leave the terminal. Doss told Darweesh there was a growing crowd outside who might be interested in greeting him, if he was interested. Darweesh said that would be fine, but that he had a request. “Listen, I’m Iraqi,” he said. “The first thing you need to do is get me a cigarette.”

Leslie Wellington woke up in her Carroll Gardens apartment on Saturday morning to a familiar sight — her 17-month old sleeping between her and her husband, Ben — and an unfamiliar one. “He doesn’t cry a whole lot,” she said of her husband. “But he woke up crying.” The Wellingtons had spent much of the previous day grappling with the fact that Trump’s executive order had been signed on Holocaust Remembrance Day —Wellington’s stepfather is a rabbi — and had woken up to a story in the Times detailing the detentions at JFK and Doss’s encounter with the CBP. “I kept thinking, This is a luxury,” Leslie said, of being in bed with her husband and child, unlike some of the families who were being kept apart. “And it shouldn’t be.”

The Wellingtons were not frequent protesters — he teaches statistics at Pratt and has a Tumblr called I Quant NY, while she is the executive director of a nonprofit that promotes urban manufacturing — but they felt like doing something. “Anyone else think we should descend on airports across the country to protest this? Anyone want to meet at Terminal 4 at JFK?” Ben wrote to his 1,200 Facebook friends, at 9:30 on Saturday morning. “If enough people will join, I’m in.” Only one wrote back.

“That’s 2,” he wrote.

Leslie called her sister to come babysit while they started making phone calls. At that point, the Wellingtons weren’t even sure you could protest at an airport. Leslie had graduated from Brooklyn Law, and vaguely remembered a class on civil liberties, from which she remembered cases detailing how demonstrations at airports could occasionally be quashed. “We were anxious about getting a bunch of people into trouble,” Ben said. Leslie called Carlos Menchaca, a Brooklyn city councilman she had previously worked for, who quickly offered to help secure permission from the Port Authority to hold the protest, and suggested several groups that might want to get involved. Having gotten minimal response from his Facebook post, Ben created an event called “JFK Detention Rally and Vigil.”

By late morning, the Facebook event had gone from a few dozen interested people to several thousand — Ben offered a hard-to-follow mathematical explanation for how interest had grown via various multipliers — and the Wellingtons had coordinated with the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York Immigration Coalition, Make the Road New York, and several other organizers, who began planning and promoting the rally. When someone at the NYCLU asked the Wellingtons for an affiliation to include in a press release, they didn’t know what to put, so they suggested “citizen organizers.”

The Wellingtons had scheduled their protest to begin just after sundown, out of respect for the Jewish sabbath, but when they arrived JFK with their 17-month-old strapped their chest at around 3 p.m., a crowd of several hundred was already gathered and chanting “No Hate, No Fear” and remixing Gwen Stefani (“This Shit is Illegal … I-L-L-E-G-A-L”). They hadn’t been the only ones with the idea to protest an immigration ban at an airport — other Facebook events had popped up recommending similar protests, though the Wellingtons’ was the largest in New York — and Nadler and Velazquez’s press conference with Darweesh had helped drive even more coverage.

As the noise grew outside, the terminal remained eerily quiet, populated only by families of arriving passengers and hired drivers, many of them immigrants from Muslim countries, holding signs waiting for passengers with last names like Campbell and Fukuyama and Hamid. With Darweesh freed, the IRAP lawyers were now trying to sort out why their other client, Haider Alshawi, was still detained. Alshawi was arriving on a refugee visa, and had been scheduled to fly on February 8, but with the executive order imminent, his American lawyers had begged the U.S. Embassy in Sweden to get him onto an earlier flight. He boarded a plane in Stockholm four hours before the order was signed, and was en route to Houston, where his wife, a 32-year-old Iraqi who had been a contractor with the American military, was living with their 7-year-old son. They had not seen each other in three years, and on a visit to a local mall before Christmas, their son had written a note to Santa at Macy’s: “Dear Santa: Can you bring my Dad from Sweden pls.”

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Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

Alshawi had been able to call his wife, in Houston, who was relaying messages to Kornfeld, the IRAP lawyer. According to his wife, the agents were asking him to sign something about booking a new flight, but it was unclear whether the flight was to Texas or back to Iraq. The IRAP lawyers told her to tell Alshawi not to sign anything.

Though CBP did not say why it chose to release Darweesh, the timing of Nadler and Velazquez’s arrival at JFK, and subsequent press conference, seemed too coincidental to have had no impact. CBP officers said they were bumping decisions up the chain in Washington, but wouldn’t be specific. After the press conference with Darweesh — security guards tried to bar the IRAP attorneys from getting back into the terminal, until the representatives interceded — Nadler and Velazquez went back to CBP to demand answers on Alshawi’s case. “You’re putting me in a very difficult position,” one CBP employee told Velazquez.

Alshawi’s case was complicated by the fact that he had arrived on a refugee visa. (Darweesh had a special immigrant visa, reserved for people who worked for the U.S. government.) At one point, a CBP official told Nadler and Velazquez that the order only allowed for a refugee to be admitted with the signature of both John Kelly, the secretary of Homeland Security, and of the secretary of State — a position that is currently unfilled. “When they said that, my heart just sank,” Finkbeiner said. “I thought, Is he going to be in detention for weeks?”

Earlier in the week, in preparation for the order’s signing, IRAP had put out a call for lawyers willing to volunteer at airports across the country — 3,000 volunteered in just four hours — and by midafternoon a stream of lawyers, some with immigration experience, others from big corporate firms in the city, had begun arriving at JFK. (Women make up just 35 percent of all lawyers, but 60 percent of public-interest attorneys are women, and the numbers seemed to reflect that.) One lawyer in Portland landed at Terminal 4 that afternoon, found the group of lawyers, and asked how he could help. The most common estimate was that somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred lawyers fanned out across four different terminals.

After Nadler and Velazquez learned from the CBP that ten other people were currently being detained in Terminal 4, the lawyers began canvassing families in the arrivals area and found that some had been waiting since the previous night for their loved ones to arrive, but had no lawyer to turn to when they didn’t. An emergency conference-call among several immigration law groups had determined that the most effective strategy was to file habeas corpus petitions on behalf of anyone they could determine was being detained, so the lawyers at IRAP and elsewhere prepared a template for habeas petitions that could be filed in anyone’s name. By late afternoon, the Central Diner, a restaurant in Terminal 4 with blue and red neon signs, had become an impromptu law office. (At O’Hare, lawyers later took over a McDonald’s.) As families were discovered in the crowd, lawyers brought them to tables at the restaurant and began asking them for personal information about their family members that could be inserted into a habeas petition.

After a few more hours of silence on Alshawi’s case, the IRAP lawyers asked Nadler and Velazquez to investigate. They were told they were waiting for a waiver from Washington, but that Alshawi was “resting comfortably.” Both Nadler and Velazquez had been at JFK for more than five hours, and had to leave, but they had already contacted other representatives who were heading to the terminal to take their place. “It’s not ideal to be cold-calling members of Congress to come to an airport on a Saturday,” Rutkin, Nadler’s chief of staff, said, with a shrug, before doing so anyway. Nadler and Velazquez demanded that CBP give the lawyers a phone number to call for updates. When the lawyers tried the number several times later in the day, no one ever picked up.

By the time the protesters outside paused for a vigil at 6 p.m., the crowd had grown into the thousands, with many more people pouring out with each arriving AirTrain. The organizers were trying to deliver messages to the crowd via mic checks, a communication tactic popular from the Occupy movement, but the crowd seemed to be filled with people for whom mass protest was a relatively new activity, and many of the mic checks were drowned out by rising chants. Across the street, a dozen police in riot gear had lined up in front of the sliding doors at the east entrance of Terminal 4, in case the protesters tried to move the protest into the terminal — they never did — and the Port Authority briefly shut down the AirTrain, claiming it was overloaded, before Governor Cuomo demanded that it be reopened. The taxi union ordered a work stoppage at JFK between six and seven o’clock, although by then the protest had more or less slowed traffic to a halt.

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Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

Inside Terminal 4, a dozen members of the New York State Police, one with an assault rifle of the kind Alshawi and Darweesh had often seen on American soldiers in Iraq, had materialized at the entrance to the customs area where Nadler and Velazquez had confronted CBP earlier that day. A little after six, a new CBP supervisor appeared and spoke to Finkbeiner and Kornfeld. (After being awake for more than 30 hours, Doss had finally left the airport that afternoon.) While she had no real news to offer, Finkbeiner reminded her that as a CBP officer, she had the authority to parole a person into the country — while the order had been made many stations above her authority, this individual decision was one that she had in her hands.

By that point, similar gatherings of lawyers, protesters, and elected officials had begun to take over airports across the country, many of them looking to New York for guidance. Lawyers at JFK and elsewhere worked through the night, and beyond, and Nadler’s and Velazquez’s staff members were relaying tactics that had proven effective to their colleagues across the country, including John Lewis, who went to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, in Atlanta, and asked a CBP official how many people were being detained. When he didn’t get an answer, he replied, “Why don’t we just sit down and stay a while.” After the vigil outside Terminal 4, the organizers of the protest announced, through a mic check that worked just fine, that there would be another protest the next day, in Battery Park; 30,000 people showed up.

Twenty minutes after Finkbeiner confronted the CBP officer, the official returned and said Alshawi would be released shortly, out of the same side door as Darweesh. Alshawi had been detained for more than 20 hours, and his eyes were filled with tears as he greeted the lawyers from IRAP: He pulled $60 from his pocket, and tried to stuff it into Kornfeld’s hands to thank her for her help. There were no more flights to Houston that night, but he would be on the first available plane in the morning.

24 Hours at JFK: Two Iraqis’ Detainment and Release