LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT — Nana Sarkisyan brought her passport with her Tuesday, just in case she had to go back to Armenia. Up until a few days ago, that was not the plan. The plan was that her husband would step off his flight, pass through customs on his immigration visa, and become a green card holder. It was a process that, her lawyer told me, usually doesn’t take long, but in the days after the issuance of an executive order blocking people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the the U.S., that wasn’t assured. Sarkisyan’s husband is Christian and an Armenian citizen, but he is also a Syrian national.
Like so many others, Sarkisyan found herself at LAX powerless and waiting. She had gotten two text messages from her husband, one saying he landed and the other saying he was being taken to another room downstairs. Then came silence, hours where she just didn’t hear back. So she waited, passport with her just in case, with streams of people passing her by and no idea where her husband was, what was happening to him, or when he would appear. Her lawyer had already warned her husband not to sign anything given to him. She said to me, “I was telling him America was different.”
Tuesday marked the fifth day since the Muslim ban, and yet in some ways it felt eerily like the first. U.S. Customs and Border Protection still held people at LAX for hours without any warning and without allowing them counsel. The lucky ones could get off a quick text message to someone, letting them know that they were being pulled aside, before disappearing into the holding room. If you weren’t lucky, family and friends just stood around wondering why you hadn’t appeared. CBP still refused to let lawyers in—despite one court order from Virginia saying explicitly they must at Dulles—and by now, immigration lawyers were coming to the airport in anticipation of their clients being held. People working with two Afghan families coming over let volunteer lawyers at LAX know Tuesday they were arriving in case they were held. (They were.) Volunteer lawyers, like reporters, played the waiting game, seeing who came out and what they had to say about the process.
And that assumed a person could get on a plane. Tuesday night, many reports were out of people being denied the ability to board flights to the United States because of the ban. Lawyers at LAX said they were scrambling to put together packets, a collection of newspaper articles and court orders, to give to any airlines showing that these people should be allowed to board.
All the while, CBP still said nothing. Talia Inlender, an attorney with legal aid nonprofit Public Counsel, said that they reached out to CBP, again, on Tuesday about what was going on and got the same answer: “We can’t give you that information.” A group of lawyers in Los Angeles said they had demanded the U.S. Marshals Service serve the federal orders to CBP, but the marshals refused, citing the instructions of counsel to await orders from the U.S. attorney. This echoed the experience of several lawyers who tried to serve an order to CBP in New York on Saturday, as captured by the New York Times. Nobody would give the lawyers the name of who was in charge, and the officer wouldn’t accept the order without a name.
Tuesday night, CBP released a statement saying that it was somehow complying with the court orders and the executive order. The Marshals gave a similar statement earlier in the day.
In all it was less the restrained legal wrangling of a courtroom, and more like legal triage. Lawyers, all volunteers, huddled at tables between an airport Pinkberry and a Cantina Laredo, staring into laptops, taking phone calls, and eating slices of pizza when they could. A few more lawyers walked around, holding signs identifying them as volunteer immigration lawyers here to help. While they worked, nervous families and friends filled the chairs nearby, checking their phones for updates that didn’t come. All they could do is wait and hope their loved ones appear from the information black box that was CBP.
“It’s really hard to get a complete picture without the access,” Inlender said. The ongoing nature of the problem—people never stop coming and going—made getting an exact number of people affected hard. Inlender described it as “many, many people.”
Instead, lawyers at LAX do an intake form for people who have been held, asking them basic questions like how long were they held and whether they have food and water, and for descriptions of the questions they were asked. The lawyers were starting to get an idea of patterns, but the experiences weren’t completely consistent, Inlender said. Some people were held for three hours, some for much longer. Some people had very intense questioning, for others it was pretty simple. Some people had their SIM cards taken from their cell phones, some didn’t. Some were held even though they weren’t from one of the seven countries on the executive order.
An Iraqi refugee told the Los Angeles Times she was held at LAX for six hours on Sunday, unable to take her breast cancer medication. Another woman told the paper she was told she had to void her student visa and put on a plane out of the country. An Afghan family was held for nearly eight hours on Tuesday even though they were coming over on a visa specifically for people who had helped the U.S. military. A lawyer who spoke to the family, and asked to remain anonymous, said the father reported he had been asked to sign something. At one point, the lawyer said, he was told by officers, “We’re going to deport you.” After calling the U.S. embassy in Kabul and the family sponsoring them, CBP finally let them go.
For more than three hours, Nana Sarkisyan stood by the rail, waiting for her husband to appear. Her lawyer, Sawsan Sharweed, had spent the day before at LAX as a volunteer; she does immigration law and speaks Arabic. She was back Tuesday to help Sarkisyan because she knew this could happen. While they waited, she helped with more intake forms. She talked to a permanent legal resident from Egypt who told her he was held for three hours. He told her the people who held him were not friendly.
Then Sarkisyan got a call from someone—she didn’t know who—saying her husband would be released soon. More time passed, and then he appeared. There was hugging, crying, kissing, all the hallmarks of an airport reunion. And then he had to do his intake interview, with Sharweed asking him about what happened to him. His interview was short. They had provided him food and water and were polite, Sharweed told me. They asked him questions about his travel history, his employment, and where he was coming from, which she told me were questions he had already answered in previous interviews before coming to the U.S.
“We’re literally relying on our clients to tell us what happened,” she said.
While the happy couple left there, the problems continued. Sharweed helped with more intake forms for people who had been held. New family members and friends arrived, worried and waiting. Immigration attorney Gihan Thomas told me she was there waiting for two clients, including an Iraqi who had worked for the military in Iraq as an interpreter. In the background, protestors chanted, “No hate. No fear. Muslims are welcome here.”