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“It’s Like Torture”: As Legal Fight Continues, Families Are Split by Trump’s Muslim Ban

Many detained by the Muslim ban were also denied access to a lawyer and threatened if they tried to use their cell phones.

Nael Zaino has seen his infant son only once.

The Syrian father had high hopes he would be reunited with his wife and child when his visa to come to the United States finally came through on Jan. 26.

But the next day, President Donald Trump passed an executive order barring refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, from entering the country.

Zaino, 32, was stopped from boarding his Los Angeles-bound flight in Istanbul, Turkey, over the weekend.

“This is a discriminatory executive order that is targeting the most vulnerable people,” Nael’s brother, Basileus Zeno, told Truthout.

Zaino’s wife was granted asylum in the US, and the couple’s son, who was born in California in June 2015, is an American citizen, Zeno explained. His brother, meanwhile, has been living in Gaziantep, in southern Turkey, as he attempted to secure a visa to be reunited with his family.

“He didn’t receive any warning,” said Zeno, who is himself a PhD student in political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and is waiting for his own US asylum application to be processed.

“How will you cancel a visa without any due process, without an email, without any confirmation?” Zeno asked. “My hope is the case of my brother will be processed. It’s unfair for [his child] to live this separation and see his mother all the time crying…. It’s like torture.”

“A Blanket Ban”

They are just one of the many families whose lives have been devastated by Trump’s executive order, which was passed late in the day last Friday.

The order blocks visitors from seven countries in the Middle East and Africa from entering the US for 90 days: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Somalia. It suspends the US refugee program for 120 days, and indefinitely bars Syrian refugees from being resettled until such a time that is “consistent with the national interest.”

Anyone that falls into these categories, and is already in the US, has also been advised not to leave the country, in fear that they will be denied entry upon their return.

It also cuts the overall refugee resettlement quota for the 2017 fiscal year from 110,000 people to 50,000. Of that number, about 30,000 refugees have already been admitted into the US, The New York Times reported.

While lawful permanent residents were initially said to be included in the ban, the White House has since walked it back, saying they would be allowed to return but may undergo additional screening before reentering the country.

The government has also clarified its directive for dual nationals, saying that the passport that travelers present on arrival will dictate their entry. For example, an Iraqi-Canadian traveling on a Canadian passport will be processed as a Canadian.

But in the hours after the order was passed, confusion reigned at airports in the US and around the world.

Some travelers were blocked from boarding their US-bound flights at airports abroad, while those that managed to fly into the US, and held immigrant and non-immigrant visas, were interrogated and detained for hours upon arrival.

Lawful permanent residents were caught in the dragnet, too, as were dual citizenship holders with passports from the seven countries affected.

A five-year-old boy was reportedly separated from his mother, who is from Iran, for several hours at Dulles airport in Washington, DC, on Saturday.

Protesters quickly gathered at major airports to demand their release, and lawyers set up makeshift offices in the terminals, where they filed habeas corpus petitions and provided free legal aid to families and friends waiting anxiously for their loved ones to be admitted.

About 84,000 people from the seven countries affected by the travel ban came into the US in 2015 on tourist, business, student or other visas, according to The New York Times, and most were from Iran and Iraq.

A recent report in The Washington Post put the number of people affected by the executive order at 90,000.

“In general, it’s a blanket ban that’s affecting anyone from five-month-olds, to 80-year-olds, who are not security threats,” said Prerna Lal, a staff attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, California.

Legal Challenges Mount

Nael Zaino (left) was looking forward to reuniting with his son, Aram, and his wife, Lin, in California on January 26, but the family's plans were shattered when President Trump's Muslim ban prevented Nael, who is from Syria, from boarding a flight to LA to rejoin Lin, who was granted asylum in the US, and Aram, a US citizen. (Photo: courtesy of Basileus Zeno)Nael Zaino (left) was looking forward to reuniting with his son, Aram, and his wife, Lin, in California on January 26, but the family’s plans were shattered when President Trump’s Muslim ban prevented Nael, who is from Syria, from boarding a flight to LA to rejoin Lin, who was granted asylum in the US, and Aram, a US citizen. (Photo: courtesy of Basileus Zeno)

On Saturday, a federal judge in New York granted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other legal groups a temporary, nationwide injunction to block the deportation of anyone stranded at a US airport under the new ban.

The plaintiffs in the case had been detained upon arrival at US airports, and “threatened with deportation even though they have valid visas,” the ACLU said in a statement.

“The judge, in a nutshell, saw through what the government was doing and gave us what we wanted…. The key tonight was making sure no one was put back on a plane,” ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt said after the court’s decision.

“Our courts today worked as they should, as bulwarks against government abuse or unconstitutional policies and orders. On week one, Donald Trump suffered his first loss in court,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero added in a statement.

Orders later came from courts in Massachusetts, Virginia and Washington, further limiting the government’s ability to detain individuals caught up in the ban, and providing lawyers with access to anyone that has been stopped.

“There is no precedent for keeping a lawful permanent resident in an airport, detained, without counsel, without seeing a judge…. It does not happen, at least not in a blanket manner,” Lal said.

But implementation of the court orders is a concern: reports have come in about US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers continuing to detain green-card holders and valid visa-holders, and deportations going ahead.

The Department of Homeland Security said on Sunday that it would comply with judicial orders, but said it would continue to enforce immigration laws and the president’s executive orders, which remain in place.

“Prohibited travel will remain prohibited, and the US government retains its right to revoke visas at any time if required for national security or public safety,” the department said in a statement.

But Lal told Truthout that it appears as though CBP officers were not complying with the courts’ orders, something that she said would be a “first in the history of [the] country.”

“What should be happening is that US Marshalls should be in all airports, and arresting anyone not complying with the court orders, which means that they should be arresting CBP,” Lal said.

“It very much seems like the judicial order is ineffective almost, and then it makes me question whether the republic is dead, whether everything that Americans take for granted in terms of freedoms and liberty is gone,” she said.

“They should wake up and realize maybe that the biggest threat to them doesn’t lie abroad and at the airport, it lies right here in Washington, DC.”

Threats to Expand the Ban to Other Countries

Major questions remain about how the order will be implemented in the following days and weeks, and what recourse people affected by the ban have to protect their rights going forward.

Nationals from countries not explicitly included in the ban have also reportedly been affected, including a Jordanian man who was sent back to Jordan from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

It is possible that the order may be expanded to explicitly include other countries, as well, according to San Francisco immigration and nationality attorney Lina Baroudi.

In a post over the weekend, Baroudi explained that the order says the Department of Homeland Security will create a list in the next 30 days of countries that “do not provide accurate information” to vet its nationals before coming to the US.

If by 60 days those countries do not comply and implement more thorough vetting procedures, “it is likely that most of their nationals will be prohibited from entering” the US, perhaps even permanently, she said.

Nazanin Zinouri, a Clemson University professor who had been visiting family in Iran, said she was taken off a Washington-bound flight in Dubai. She has lived in the US for seven years, she said in a Facebook post on Saturday.

“No one warned me when I was leaving, no one cared what will happen to my dog or my job or my life there,” Zinouri wrote. “They didn’t say it with words, but with their actions, that my life doesn’t matter. Everything I worked for all these years doesn’t matter.”

“Every Country Is Turning Us Away”

Morrie Nourian, an immigration attorney in Dallas, Texas, told Truthout he had been called for help early Saturday morning by a relative of an Iranian family who had been detained in New York.

The family had waited for 12 years — going through multiple interviews, administrative processing, background checks and security clearances — to secure a family immigrant visa for the US, Nourian said.

But upon arrival, only a few hours after the executive order was passed, they were detained, and sent back to Iran.

Nourian said many people who were detained were denied access to a lawyer, and were threatened by CBP officers if they tried to use their cell phones to contact family members.

He added that he has advised anyone looking to travel to the US to postpone their plans for the next month. If people must travel, they should “not be intimidated,” he said, but they should take down the officer’s name, their flight number, the time they arrive, and as many details as they can.

Lal said that those who are detained as lawful permanent residents should not sign anything that would relinquish their status in the country, including a form known as I-407, which does exactly that.

Green card holders should request a hearing before an immigration judge and demand access to an immigration lawyer, she said.

Meanwhile, Basileus Zeno said he will continue to fight for his brother’s case, but he can’t forget about the many others — Somalis, Yemenis, Iraqis and others — who have been impacted by this order, as well.

“I can’t not think about people who are stuck all over the globe, waiting for any kind of follow-up or some clarifications,” Zeno told Truthout.

He compared the situation to that of the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying 900 Jewish refugees from Germany in search of asylum in 1939. The boat was turned away by the US and Canada, and eventually its passengers were returned to Europe.

About a quarter of the people on board eventually died in Nazi death camps during World War II.

“We are all on a ship that is the St. Louis of the 21st Century, and every country is turning us away,” Zeno said. “Our dreams are very simple in life. Sometimes, a hug, a kiss … it’s shameful.”

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