LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT—It was hard to not feel enthusiastic when I first arrived Sunday at Los Angeles International Airport, although that feeling would wane by the time I left, replaced by a quote from one woman who had been reunited with her sister after five hours of detainment: “I don’t believe I’m in the U.S. anymore.” But before that, when I arrived, protestors outside Tom Bradley International Terminal and their chants of “CBP let them free” greeted me as I walked up. They were thousands of people deep outside, covering the wide entranceway and blocking off the interior traffic lanes. A pathway was left open for people to pass through, but it wasn’t much; there were just so many bodies. Inside, more protestors circled the barrier lining the area where people leaving their flights walk out. They chanted. They held signs. They seemed like the world’s most enthusiastic greeting party.
I checked in with the people who were giving updates to the media, being led by Public Counsel, a provider of pro bono lawyers. The update wasn’t much of an update. Judy London told me that U.S. Customs and Border Protection was refusing to talk to them or to the families of people being held. They had no idea even how many people were being kept. With that, I went back to doing what reporters typically do at protests—floating around, talking to people who looked like they were up for talking, taking pictures, and sending out random updates on Twitter.
People kept coming. They included lawyers, from different types of practices and who spoke different languages, who just came to help. A few people were gathering names of the lawyers, so they would know who was there, what skills they had, and what languages they spoke. But there wasn’t much they could lawyer. People trickled off their flights, some seeming to return with very few problems. A few even cheered on the protestors and snapped pictures of them. U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters stopped by and led some chanting.
Outside, the crowd grew so big it spilled upstairs and into the parking garages.
After about an hour and a half, I went back to the area where Public Counsel was giving media updates. The update on what was happening at the airport wasn’t much. It was the same as when I arrived—CBP wasn’t talking to them or the families. They still didn’t know how many people were being held or for how long. Now, it was possible that people were being held at other terminals, not just this one. But nobody knew for certain. Nothing was certain, except all the not knowing.
The lawyers did add one piece of good news: A judge had ordered Ali Vayeghan be brought back to the United States and admitted. Vayeghan had been deported on Saturday from LAX, where he had been flying to see his family before joining his wife in Indiana, the Los Angeles Times reported. The order from the judge sounded like good news on its own. But Vayeghan’s family told the Times that he already was on a plane to Tehran. They didn’t know what would come next.
The protests continued long after the advertised 4 p.m. end time. That’s when it turned into a march, circling its way to Terminal 3, where it parked for awhile before returning to Bradley. Unlike the women’s march a week earlier, there were more openly religious signs, all meant to show solidarity. Jews carried signs professing support for their Muslim brothers or warning Never Again. Biblical quotes were common. People prayed.
The protest stayed large, but did thin eventually, mostly staying outside with a few people with signs remaining inside. Volunteer lawyers still showed up. But after more than four hours at the airport, I had almost no answers as to what was happening to people who were being held. Nobody knew how many people were detained, and it seemed like there was no way to get a number. As some people were released, more people came in via flights. This wasn’t a one-time problem, as it had seemed last night, but an ongoing issue that renewed with all the arrivals. Reporters and lawyers ended up doing the same thing—camping outside the area at the Bradley Terminal where people were spit out, looking for emotional reunions, and asking those people if they would say what happened. Most didn’t want to talk; visibly tired and upset, they said over and over again they just wanted to go home.
One woman spoke to a few reporters. She didn’t want to give her name but she had just been reunited with her sister, who had returned from Iran. They live in Irvine, Calif., and the woman said her sister went back to Iran quite a bit to visit family. It’s usually a simple process when she gets home, the woman said, with her sister sending her a quick text saying that she’s landed and about to make her way home. Today, her sister was held for five hours.
She described what her sister had told her. She said her sister did have her cell phone, so she could text. But the authorities took her driver’s license and green card. They asked her questions about her social media usage, and asked for the names of relatives and phone numbers. The group had about 20 people, some from Iran, some from other Arab countries. They had water, but no food. As her sister was being released, more people were coming into the holding area from other flights. Her sister told her that it they were calling it a vetting process, which she said seemed unheard of for someone who was in the country legally.
“It’s unbelievable,” she said. “I was just telling her, that, you now, I don’t believe I’m in the U.S. anymore.”
I left soon after talking to her, five hours after I had arrived and with as few answers as when I got there. I didn’t know where people were being held or even really understand why. Lawyers stood outside the receiving area, asking the same questions as journalists: What airline were you on? What country were you coming from? How long were you detained?
Like other people, I heard that people were being forced to sign I-407 forms, but nobody could confirm it. The closest confirmation came from the ACLU to the LA Times, saying that “federal immigration officials have been urging some detainees to waive their applications for admission to the U.S.” A New York Times report would show members of Congress getting similar answers—nothing, not even an acknowledgment that they were holding people—at Dulles International Airport.
Two hours after I left, the protests kicked up again.
In one of the last dispatches, it looked a lot like how the day started, with protestors at the greeting area and a new number for how many people lawyers said were being detained, which would probably change.
Still, there were no answers. Instead, I kept thinking about one of the last things said to me by the woman who had just reunited with her sister.
“I left Iran because of this,” she said, “and now I’m here, after 30 years. I feel like, you know, deja vu.”