Around 1:30 pm on Tuesday, soon after a Saudi Airlines plane landed from Jeddah, a US Customs and Border Protection agent slipped through the security wall at the international arrivals terminal at Virginia’s Washington Dulles airport. He opened a door, crossing between a group of people already welcomed to the United States, and those still waiting in bureaucratic limbo.
Azadeh Erfani spotted him and began her chase, a copy of a court order in hand.
“Excuse me,” she said.
“No comment,” the agent said. He walked past her.
“I’m an attorney,” Erfani said. “I’m not the press. I have a court order—”
“No comment,” he said. He disappeared back behind the wall.
Erfani works with the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. Legally, she and her fellow attorneys are allowed to give face-to-face legal counsel to permanent residents stuck in the airport’s secondary screening, where visa holders subject to Donald Trump’s new immigration ban are taken for further questioning.
But the lawyers at Dulles have not been allowed behind the wall. They don’t know who has been pulled out of line, their visa status, or where they are being taken.
Finding a CBP agent gives them a chance to confirm information they’ve received from the other side — information often brought to them by travelers or families waiting in the arrivals terminal.
They aren’t having much luck.
When President Trump signed an executive order banning visa holders from seven majority-Muslim nations from entering the US for 90 days, airports across the nation spun into chaos — Dulles among them. Hundreds of travelers were stopped at customs, detained for hours, and thoroughly searched and questioned. Some were sent back. For the first two days after the signing, the ban included permanent residents, or green card holders; after a backlash, the Trump administration said green card holders would be let into the United States on a “case-by-case” basis.
The frenzy has calmed, at Dulles and elsewhere. But a deep uncertainty has settled in. Immigrants aren’t sure of their rights. Lawyers, operating on unconfirmed anecdotes, are trying to piece together a picture of the detainees on the other side of the wall, and CBP agents appear in little mood to cooperate.
The protesters who mobbed Dulles last weekend had largely cleared out by Tuesday. Instead, a small welcoming committee lined the arrivals corridor, as the first shift of a volunteer legal support team stood in position for a flight that had arrived from Saudi Arabia.
A woman onboard told the legal volunteers she saw two Sudanese students with green cards detained in line. The volunteers are run by Michael Lukens, the pro-bono director for the CAIR Coalition. For the next few hours, that rumor about the students is the only piece of information Lukens’s team had to go on.
That’s the system: Volunteer lawyers and translators stop people coming through the wall, ask them if they’ve seen anything — people being detained, being pulled out of line, anything out of the ordinary. Tuesday, most people shook their heads no. Others listed the questions they were asked at customs. The lawyers took notes, attempting to cobble together an understanding of the new norms.
How the White House’s executive order is implemented is in the hands of CBP. Far below the president’s level of command, these enforcement officers didn’t receive any advance notice or training, the New York Times reported:
One customs officer, who declined to be quoted by name, said he was given a limited briefing about what to do as he went to his post on Saturday morning, but even managers seemed unclear. People at the agency were blindsided, he said, and are still trying to figure things out, even as people are being stopped from coming into the United States.
“If the secretary doesn’t know anything, how could we possibly know anything at this level?” the officer said, referring to Mr. Kelly.
The lack of clarity has resulted in horror stories of 5-year-olds being detained, 88-year-olds being stripped of their medicine, and US citizens reportedly being pulled out of line just for wearing a veil, said Sirine Shebaya, a volunteer lawyer.
“With executive orders, there is always a delay in implementation, but in this case it’s a lot of people’s lives that are being affected in the confusion,” Lukens said. “We are here to try and keep CBP in compliance and to make sure the [detainees] have been provided the treatment they are afforded by law.”
The lawyers have started to sense a pattern, Shebaya said. Over the weekend, returning lawful residents were being subjected to very extensive screening and then let out, and first-time lawful permanent residents were being turned back. That trend seems to be building by the day.
“Any Arabic speakers?” a voice shouted behind the modest line of protesters. Two veiled Sudanese women with green cards were released from extended questioning.
“Only 45 minutes, so not too bad,” Erfani said.
“There’s an Arabic translator at Terminal 13,” she called back to her colleague.
Even with the new arrivals, there was a lot the lawyers still didn’t know. Where have people been sent? How many have been detained? Will the vetting rules change?
The people with the answers — the border patrol — remained behind the wall.
“You never know”
A Sudanese man, who declined to give his name, kept calling his wife and daughter as he waited by the arrival gates for the plane from Saudi Arabia. Sudan is on the list of banned countries, but his family has American passports. He was still nervous.
“You never know,” he said. Finally, someone answered his phone call. A sense of relief washed over him as he walked outside to find his family.
Erfani stood behind her station and listened to an Iranian woman in her 70s ask for help for her daughter — she was told to get off a flight to Washington, DC, and is stuck in Istanbul.
Another Iranian couple asked Erfani to calm their fears about leaving the country. The husband, a green card holder, wanted to know if he would be able to return to the US if he visits Iran.
It’s the kind of legal counsel everyone wants, but this team can’t give, Goli Tiffen, a volunteer Persian translator said. There’s nothing definitive about the way the government is now treating green card holders from those countries. The lawyers can’t say, don’t be scared.
Tiffen, an Iranian immigrant herself, walked back to the legal table after asking several travelers if they had seen anything in line for customs. She didn’t have any new information. She wasn’t surprised.
“If I was in Iran and someone asked me if I saw anything, I would keep my head down,” Tiffen said. The travelers, she noted, are coming from countries where liberties like freedom of speech, or the right to a fair trial, are not always afforded.
For many of them, it’s the prospect of those freedoms that makes the United States so appealing. Instead they have left with fear and worry about what could come next.
“When I saw they held that 5-year-old — I have a 6-year-old daughter and I can’t imagine,” Vanessa Runnalls, 36, said, holding a sign welcoming the travelers. “It’s unconscionable. It’s un-American.”
“Do you think holding signs up helps?” she asked.
There isn’t an answer to that question either.