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A Look Inside The Conditions For Detainees Under Trump’s Travel Ban

by Kirstin Kelley

January 30, 2017
People protest President Donald Trump’s travel ban at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX on January 29, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.

When Farah al Mousawi first arrived at Los Angeles International Airport at 7:30 p.m. Saturday night, she was surprised that it wasn't nearly as chaotic as coverage of the travel ban demonstrations at major U.S. airports had led her to believe. “Protesters were at the Departure area, holding signs and chanting, and it was very beautiful, very peaceful. The police were very courteous and supportive and they guided me to the right place I needed to be.”

The 32-year-old Los Angeles-based security professional and native speaker of Arabic had rushed to the Tom Bradley International Terminal with Sarah Tahjian, 31, an attorney also from the area, to offer pro bono translation services and legal representation to passengers in limbo thanks to President Trump’s executive order banning travelers from seven countries with largely Muslim populations.

Those stopped by border patrol over the weekend at major U.S. airports included extensively vetted permanent residents, green card holders and dual citizensstudents on visas, people working for nongovernmental organizations, and knowledge workers. As many as 50 travelers were still detained by the time al Mousawi and Tahjian left the airport at midnight on Saturday, despite the ACLU-driven ruling from a federal judge that afternoon, which officially prevented further deportations. The pair told GOOD about the legal issues and mass confusion they encountered at the scene—as well as how protesters can best support targets of Trump at rallies in the future.

Tell us about the condition of the people that you were talking to. Were they okay? Fearful? In danger?

al Mousawi: We were at the corner by the men's bathroom holding signs in Arabic and in Farsi, asking ‘Were you detained?’ and spoke with several individuals. One who was released told us that the police in the airport at LAX were very nice, but apparently the customs patrol was not. There was a ‘sit down and shut up’ kind of attitude. And nearly all were told not to use their cell phones for their own safety. As of Saturday at 10 p.m., there were 50 people being held.

There was a ‘sit down and shut up’ kind of attitude.

Tahjian: No physical harm, but people were crying once they were reunited with their loved ones. And we did have several reports that those being held were not provided with any water or food while they were there. One couple that we spoke with had been there, held by immigration, for nine hours.

In your view, was ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) helpful in connecting detainees with legal representation and translation, or did it create barriers?

Tahjian: On Friday, there was no access to counsel but there was counsel at LAX on Saturday. The Immigrant Defenders Law Center, One Justice, and Immigrant Legal Assistance are trying to get legal assistance to individuals who they have confirmed have been detained, but that's very difficult because they are not allowed to be in contact with their families.

So we were going by statements like, ‘My loved one landed and I haven't heard from them.’ In my view, that is still a barrier to assistance.

What do you see as the most urgent concern right now?

al Mousawi: Mainly, we need to resolve the confusion about the federal judge order. Some officials have been saying that it actually needs to be enacted and people need to let the passengers in, while others are saying ‘No,’ the halt means that they are not allowed to be deported but they should remain in custody areas. We need a federal source to help lawyers and citizens alike understand.

The second concern is for the safety of the people that are held. We don't know if there are old people, young people, children. We don’t know if they are being fed or given water, being treated humanely.

How can those who plan to keep protesting this week best serve the people who are most directly affected by the ban? How about protests supporting other vulnerable populations in the future?

Tahjian: I may have differing opinions than others on this, but at the beginning of the night, the protesters were up at the Departures level and that was actually very effective and a helpful sort of diversion from what was going on at the airport. The lawyers were down at the Arrivals level, speaking with family members and trying to gather information.

We don’t know if they are being fed or given water, being treated humanely.

It was when the protesters came down to the Arrivals level too that it became disruptive and difficult for us to continue speaking to family members or get any information or anything like that so it actually was.

al Mousawi: Try to keep it as calm and peaceful as possible; try not to confront the authorities because that would actually make matters more chaotic.  And allow us to do our job in communicating with the passengers. Those detained are feeling overwhelmed and emotional right now; when they see a large crowd cheering loudly that might scare them even more.

We are trying to find a way to comfort them and let them know that we are here to support their legal right to exist in this country just like everybody else.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Photo by Genaro Molina / LA Times via Getty Images. 

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A Look Inside The Conditions For Detainees Under Trump’s Travel Ban