How The Refugee Ban Is Affecting Texas
A snapshot of two of Texas’s busiest airports in the aftermath of the refugee ban.
President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning refugees sent ripple effects across the country, including Texas. Texas Monthly reporters headed to the Dallas-Fort Worth International Aiport and Bush Intercontinental Airport to record the scenes at these busy international hubs.
Tarek and Osama Al Olabi walked into the arrivals hall at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport Saturday morning expecting to be reunited with their parents, who had just flown in from Dubai for a visit. The young Syrian men, who moved to the U.S. a few years ago to attend Southern Methodist University, instead spent the day pacing the crowded hall and seeking answers about whether their parents—who had traveled to the U.S. on valid B1 visitor visas—would be released from immigration detention. Their parents’ flight took off from Dubai at 2:57 in the morning, and the text of President Trump’s executive order temporarily halting immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries was released more than an hour after they were in the air. “I heard about the signing but I was not expecting this,” Tarek told me Saturday night. “I thought it applied to people who are planning to come to the U.S. You cannot give people green cards and visas and then tell them not to come.”
In Dallas, almost fifty others arriving on various international flights Saturday found themselves in the same situation, held in a series of rooms controlled by Customs and Border Protection Saturday. By late Saturday night, that number had dwindled to nine, who spent the nights on cots furnished by the airport. The ACLU estimated some 200 people had been detained at airports nationwide, though Trump spokesman Sean Spicer put that number at 109 during his appearance on ABC’s This Week Sunday morning. The rollout of the order, which bars immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen—for 90 days and blocks all refugee resettlement for 120 days, has been rocky across the country, with local immigration officials making determinations of who should be allowed to enter on a case-by-case basis. (On Sunday morning, Reince Priebus announced that it would no longer apply to green card holders, according to the New York Times.)
Throughout the day Saturday, Tarek and Osama managed to communicate infrequently with their parents, who were exhausted and confused but were sometimes able to sneak their sons a furtive text message. Though their parents’ English is poor, they weren’t provided a translator to allow them to fully communicate with the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents, who were asking them to sign expedited removal documents. Their father requested a lawyer but was not allowed one, despite the presence of a dozen or so volunteer attorneys milling about in the arrivals hall.
So the brothers walked through terminal D, where an impromptu protest in the international arrivals area grew throughout the evening on Saturday, from several dozen people around five in the evening to several hundred five hours later. The protestors in Dallas clutched signs (“This ban is only the beginning”) and chanted slogans (“No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here”). One American Airlines crew member took off his jacket and joined the chanting crowds for a few minutes before heading home. A public school teacher from Arlington shared that she came out after hearing about the protests from a friend; she is not particularly political, she said, but came out because the ban just felt wrong. “I don’t even know any Muslims,” she said. Moved by the solidarity, Osama hoisted a sign featuring the Syrian flag and the text “#he will not divide us.”
Standing near a pillar in the arrivals hall, Omar Suleiman, an imam at Valley Ranch Islamic Center (profiled in Texas Monthly last August by Eric Benson), was weary, but resolute. “This is becoming the new daily for us,” he said with a sigh. His tweet imploring others to join the protest was retweeted more than 5,500 times, reaching sympathizers like Eric Folkerth, a pastor at Northaven United Methodist Church, who greeted Suleiman and offered his assistance. “I’m embarrassed as an American and as a Christian to see people that have already been vetted by our country being detained and sent back,” Folkerth said. “Trump says he wants to prioritize Christians. That’s against the teachings of Jesus.”
Movement to free the detainees was well underway on Saturday evening. As a group of volunteer attorneys milled around in a corner of the room, speaking with family members of detainees, the ACLU’s national office petitioned for an emergency stay in the Eastern District of New York, and just after eight in the evening Central time, a U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly granted that stay, halting the deportation of those detained at airports and those still in transit. The news buzzed through the room, causing the crowd to erupt in cheers. “This is so amazing. Thank you all,” Osama said breathlessly, to no one in particular.
But then an hour passed, and then another, without any additional detainees released.
In addition to the concern over the order, some came to the airport to seek clarity on how it was being implemented. Around nine in the evening, Congressman Mark Veasey, a Democrat who represents District 33, stood in a breezeway outside the arrivals hall and said he was shocked by the lack of transparency the Department of Homeland Security was displaying on Saturday. After he had left messages for his local customs official he had not heard back. Someone in Washington, D.C., told him the department had “a lot going on right now” and so was unable to answer the congressman’s questions.
Amidst this backdrop, most GOP leaders are keeping quiet. U.S. Representative Michael McCaul, of Austin, and U.S. Representative Joe Barton, of Ennis, were among those who praised the effort. But Governor Greg Abbott, who took steps to withdraw the state from the federal refugee resettlement program in September, has yet to release a statement on the ban. Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn similarly were not rushing for the microphones. Meanwhile, local officials like Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins told the Dallas Morning News, “Not since the St. Louis during World War II have we seen this sort of animus towards those fleeing violence and danger,” and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings apologized to the detainees “on behalf of the city of Dallas.”
Osama ended up staying overnight in the arrivals hall, catching a few winks of sleep under a teal blanket around 5:30 in the morning, and Tarek went home a few hours earlier around 2 a.m., and headed back to the airport Sunday morning hoping to get an update about his parents, who had spent the night alongside other detainees on a cot provided by the airport. Sunday afternoon Tarek and Osama were finally reunited with their parents when they were finally released from detention, along with all the other detainees at DFW. Tomorrow, people from these countries with visas to visit the U.S. likely won’t be permitted to board their inbound flights at all.
Around seven on Saturday evening, Bill Atta took a place alongside his fellow limousine drivers in the international arrivals hall of Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport and held up a sign with a handwritten name in Arabic. Atta was early— Turkish Airlines Flight 33 from Istanbul wasn’t scheduled to land for another half hour—but he wanted to make sure he was there to greet his passengers, seven members of a Palestinian family who were traveling to visit relatives in Houston. One of the family’s Houston relatives had asked Atta to pick them up.
As passengers from the Turkish Airways flight began exiting through the automatic sliding glass doors leading into the arrivals hall, many pushing carts piled high with luggage, no one approached Atta to identify themselves from his sign. The driver, who was born in Afghanistan but has lived in the U.S. for over thirty years, worried that the family was being detained by Customs and Border Protection officers. He knew Jordan, where many of the Palestinians were coming from, wasn’t one of the seven countries whose citizens were now banned from entering the U.S., but he worried that because they were Muslims who didn’t speak much English they would be subject to “extreme vetting” laid out by Trump and his executive order.
As Atta waited, the first of what would grow to be around a hundred protesters began trickling into the arrivals hall. “Houston, one of your own are being held at JFK!” screamed Celina Landsman, referring to Haider Alshawi, an Iraqi refugee who had been detained by CBP at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on his way to reunite with his wife and son in Houston.
Landsman, who said her own grandparents had come to the U.S. as refugees from Cuba, was soon joined by dozens more protesters, many of them with children in tow. Attorney Franklin Bynum had brought a bouquet of roses so that, if confronted by the police, he could claim that he was there to pick up a friend. “It’s very upsetting,” Bynum said of Trump’s executive order, struggling to make himself heard over the boisterous crowd. “It’s lawless. In some ways it’s an extension of immigration policies that have been around for 20 years, but there’s no question that this is an extreme move.”
Organized in part by the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and promoted on social media, the protest also drew many people who had attended a Democratic National Committee forum earlier in the day at Texas Southern University. Several candidates for DNC chairperson made appearances at the protest, including Tom Perez, the former labor secretary under President Obama, who arrived with his shirtsleeves rolled up, looking ready for a brawl. “You are part of a movement to take back America,” Perez told the crowd, which formed a circle around him, cheering and waving signs. “Organize, organize, organize!”
Monitoring the protest from one side of the immigration hall was a group of about ten officers from the Houston Police Department. A police representative said that the protest was technically illegal since no one had applied for a permit, but that they would allow it to continue as long as it didn’t get any larger or more disruptive.
Elsewhere in the hall, a small group of pro-bono attorneys huddled together, discussing tactics. They were having trouble getting an accurate count from Customs and Border Protection of the number of passengers in detention. One of the lawyers was Liah Olsen, an ACLU legal observer who was just getting out of a movie with her daughter when she heard about the protest and decided to head to the airport to see if she could help.
Meanwhile, Atta, the limo driver, was still waiting for the Palestinian family. He showed me a photo on his smartphone of a girl standing by a luggage carousel, looking glum. “This is from inside,” he told me. He had learned that all the family members except one man had been cleared, but that the family was waiting so that they could leave the airport together.
The protest was still going strong when, a few minutes after ten in the evening, the sliding glass doors that led from immigration processing to the arrivals hall silently opened, letting through a group of seven tired-looking people—two young boys, two girls in bright magenta hijabs, a younger girl without a hijab, one woman, and one man. Atta was standing beside the exit, still holding his Arabic sign, when the group emerged, and was the first to welcome to the family to the United States, giving the man a hearty handshake. They were soon surrounded by a scrum of reporters and photographers sticking microphones and cameras in their faces. At least one local television news channel, KPRC, broadcast the scene live.
After answering a few of the reporters’ questions on the family’s behalf, Atta began leading the group out of the airport. The protesters quickly cleared a path for them, applauding as the family passed by. “Welcome!” someone shouted. The man, pushing a luggage cart, grinned and gave the crowd a wave. One of the girls had her smartphone out, filming the scene. The atmosphere was festive, like a welcome home party for a victorious sports team. Several protesters had tears in their eyes.
Finally the family made their way to the exit and out into the Houston night. The protesters dispersed soon afterwards—but not before agreeing to meet back at the arrivals terminal on Sunday night and do it all again.