Inside the Huge JFK Airport Protest Over Trump's Muslim Ban

Muslims detained in airports face an uncertain future as historic protests put pressure on the Trump administration

Thousands of protesters gathered at JFK airport in New York City Saturday in protest of people detained under Trump's executive order Friday. Credit: Stephanie Keith/Getty

Thousands of New Yorkers have flooded JFK International Airport Saturday in opposition to President Trump's executive order to effectively ban Muslims from entering the United States. Although the protest begins at JFK in response to news that Customs and Border Patrol was holding two Iraqis in detention, demonstrations spread nationwide as stories of Muslims held in limbo came to light in major transportation hubs across the United States. By the end of the night, judges in New York City, Massachusetts, Virginia and Washington State have blocked parts of Trump's order.

Trump issued the executive order – which barred entry of nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and totally shut down refugee resettlement for 120 days – late Friday afternoon, fulfilling a campaign pledge to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Though Trump began calling his policy "extreme vetting" in a thinly disguised attempt to hide its real purpose, Rudy Giuliani acknowledged on Fox News Saturday night that Trump's intent was to ban Muslims. Trump signed the order on Holocaust Remembrance Day, an irony not lost on families of survivors of Nazi concentration camps, who criticized Trump's order.

In New York, what begins in the afternoon as a gathering of several dozen swells to a mass of thousands for a planned 6 p.m. vigil. The day culminates in a partial victory across town in a Brooklyn courtroom, where federal Judge Ann Donnelly has issued a stay of removal for the estimated 100 to 200 people detained at airports around the country under Trump's order – some of them children and U.S. legal permanent residents. The judge's ruling is in response to an emergency motion filing by the American Civil Liberties Union asking Donnelly to prevent the government from sending back those detained under Trump's order to their country of origin. A separate ruling issued by a Boston judge orders the government to release anyone it's been holding under Trump's order, a step beyond what Judge Donnelly demanded.

In a phone interview with Rolling Stone late Saturday night, the ACLU's Lee Gelernt, who argued the case, says that while the order is good news, there are still many unresolved questions. "It says: anybody who has come here and been subjected to the Trump executive order may not be removed back to their home country until the court figures out whether the executive order is lawful," Gelernt says. "The court didn't order the government to release everyone to their families."

Judge Donnelly instead told the government to provide names and locations for everyone the Department of Homeland Security is holding under the Trump order, and for the parties to attempt to work it out. While some of those detained might be released, some could be held in DHS detention centers. A Sunday morning DHS press release pledged to "continue to enforce all of President Trump's Executive Orders in a manner that ensures the safety and security of the American people."

As of midnight Saturday, lawyers at Legal Aid have not been given access to three clients who are still being held at JFK. Legal Aid supervising attorney Sarah T. Gillman, a longtime immigration attorney, does not mince words when asked about the executive order. "I think this is one of the worst things I've seen in my entire life, certainly in my legal career," she says. "There are families sitting here at the airport who have followed every procedure that they're supposed to follow with the government, and their loved ones are not being permitted to join them."

"Back with Occupy Wall Street, they said we didn't have a purpose. Now, suddenly, we have too many purposes."

According to reports, officials from the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Patrol had received little, if any, direction from the White House about how to implement the ban. That confusion is apparent at JFK Saturday. "We didn't make this decision. This was above our pay grade," a woman in plain clothes surrounded by CBP agents is overheard saying to a group of lawyers. Family members of detained travelers and lawyers repeatedly complain of lack of access and a near-total breakdown in official channels of communication.

The two lead plaintiffs in the ACLU case, Hamid Khalid Darweesh and Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi, are Iraqis who were en route to the United States when the executive order was signed. Darweesh, who had served as an interpreter for the U.S. military, is released on Saturday afternoon, but Alshawi is held for several more hours, until authorities let him go that evening. In a remote corner of Terminal 4, Alshawi greets lawyers and advocates and waves into a smartphone, apparently greeting his family after his ordeal.

Some family members of detained travelers seem shocked as much as angry. A man from Yemen speaks with a small gathering of journalists, describing his 67-year-old diabetic mother who had just been issued a visa on January 22nd but is currently in custody. Another man, nearby, says that his mother-in-law, who is Iranian, is also being held by Customs agents. (Both men decline to give their names, out of fear for their personal safety.)

As angry as New Yorkers are with the Trump administration's order, they're equally dedicated to pitching in however possible. Some protesters make last-minute signs with pizza boxes. At one point, a car pulls over to hand curbside protesters a box of Dunkin' Donuts hot chocolate through the window. Throughout the day and into the early morning, lawyers volunteer to provide any assistance they can. Sofie Syed hunches over her laptop in Terminal 1, drafting a habeas petition to challenge the legality of CBP's detention of her client. At Terminal 4, where most of the action is happening, Alexandria Rizio stands at the arrival gate with a sign that reads, "Immigration Lawyers. Do you need help? Do you have information?"

Reza Mazaheri represents several Iranian clients affected by the order, some of whom are stuck in Turkey as of Saturday night. None of his clients are being held at JFK, but when the call went out for lawyers who speak Farsi, he came to the airport to see what help he could provide. "Some of my clients are spouses of U.S. citizens, some went home to visit family. These are people with jobs, mortgages," he says. "The good thing is the reaction from the public has been swift."

Outside, protesters spill into the roadway and march from one terminal entrance to another. Karnagit Signh, a Sikh, holds a sign that reads, "I was beaten once because someone thought I was a Muslim." Like many people there Saturday, he's angry about Trump's first week in office. "I'm fucking enraged, man," he says. "Right now they're coming for our Muslim brothers, but we're all under attack. But seeing everyone who is out tonight is restoring some sense of my faith in people."

Although the demonstration is centered on Muslims facing acute persecution at the airport, activists consistently say the threats the Trump administration poses to any marginalized group is a threat to all. Standing in a pick-up median in the chilly January air, Ryley Pogensky holds a sign that reads, "Black. Queer. Trans. Jew. I deserve equal rights, and immigrants and refugees do too."

"Trump has created so much fear in the LGBT community," Pogensky says. "Whenever you can get out to a protest, you have to."

In a further signal that Trump's attacks on Muslims and immigrants are creating mass solidarity, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance calls for a "one hour work stoppage" from 6 to 7 Saturday night.

As for what comes next legally, the judge in the ACLU case will hold a hearing in the coming weeks to determine the order's broader legality. Eventually, the case could wind up at the Supreme Court.

On the A train platform Saturday, after the judge's stay has been announced, James Yeh tells a friend he's planning on "setting aside a few hours a week, at least, for this kind of thing."

"Back with Occupy Wall Street, they said we didn't have a purpose," Yeh tells Rolling Stone. "Now, suddenly, we have too many purposes."