Iranian man barred from entering U.S. lands at LAX; first to return after court order

The first time Ali Vayeghan tried to enter the United States, the Iranian man was met at Los Angeles International Airport by stern border control officials, who detained him in a sparse room overnight before forcing him back onto a plane.

Six days and 15,000 miles of flying later, Vayeghan returned to LAX on Thursday and received a very different welcome.

Emerging into Terminal 2 in the early afternoon, the 61-year-old was met by a raucous cheer from supporters, lawyers and family members who have been fighting for Vayeghan’s admittance into the U.S. since he was sent away under the sweeping travel ban President Trump imposed on several predominantly Muslim countries.

Vayeghan’s successful return was the result of a federal judge’s emergency ruling overturning the government’s decision to ban him, making Vayeghan the first person denied entry to be allowed into the country after a legal challenge to the White House’s executive order.

Flanked by his brother and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Vayeghan was surrounded by a throng of journalists Thursday after showing his immigrant visa at the airport’s border checkpoint. Asked how he felt, he responded in Persian, which was translated by his niece: “This is what humanity looks like. This is what human rights looks like. I am shocked, honored and awed.”

“Please let them know I’m not mad at anybody,” he added. “This is the greatest country in the world.”

As she waited for Vayeghan to appear, attorney Talia Inlender, part of the legal team that fought for Vayeghan’s return, spoke to reporters of his tortuous journey to the U.S. Standing amid supporters holding balloons and flowers, she blasted federal immigration authorities for turning Vayeghan away.

Garcetti, who has spoken out against the severe travel restrictions, was on hand to celebrate the news of Vayeghan’s arrival, but said the effects of the president’s order continue to be felt.

“The moment we are about to witness should not be extraordinary,” he said of Vayeghan’s impending arrival on a flight from Qatar.

Trump’s order, which went into effect Friday, bars people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran, from entering the U.S. for at least three months. It also imposed a minimum four-month ban on refugees from any country coming into the U.S.

Critics have said the order, which was billed as a way to better guard against terror attacks in the U.S., will alienate Muslims and do little to increase safety.

Newly sworn-in Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly said earlier this week that the restrictions target some countries that “are in various states of collapse” and have poor record-keeping or unreliable police forces that undermine U.S. border officials’ efforts to determine travelers’ identities and criminal histories.

Vayeghan’s return marked a dramatic reversal from Friday evening, when the 61-year-old arrived at LAX just hours after Trump signed the executive order, setting off chaotic scenes in airports as confused federal officials scrambled to decipher the new rules.

Waiting for Vayeghan at the airport on that day was his brother, who lives in Los Angeles. The men had planned to spend a short visit catching up before Vayeghan continued on to Indiana, where he would reunite after 12 years with his son, a U.S. citizen.

The brother and other family members said they waited at LAX until after 3 a.m. Saturday, with scant information about his whereabouts. 

The American Civil Liberties Union and L.A.-based immigration attorney Stacy Tolchin stepped in, filing a habeas corpus petition Saturday that demanded Vayeghan’s release. Attorneys argued that Trump’s executive order violated Vayeghan’s due process and was hostile to a specific religion, Islam, putting it at odds with the 1st Amendment’s establishment clause.

U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee granted an emergency temporary restraining order instructing that Vayeghan be allowed to enter the country, but it arrived too late. Vayeghan had already been put on a plane to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates on Saturday afternoon.

According to his brother and attorneys who had sporadic phone contact with him, Vayeghan was pressured by officials to sign documents that revoked his immigrant visa. Regretting the decision afterward, he resisted demands that he board a plane for Dubai and was carried to his seat by authorities, an attorney for the ACLU said.

Gee amended her order and instructed that U.S. officials were to facilitate Vayeghan’s return from Dubai and admit him to the country. Citing the “irreparable harm” Vayeghan would face if he was forced to go back to Iran, Gee ruled that his attorneys had showed a strong likelihood of successfully arguing that his denial to the U.S. violated federal law.

Instead, officials in Dubai placed Vayeghan on a plane bound for Tehran.

In an email to The Times, a Department of Justice spokeswoman said her agency “coordinated with U.S. Customs and Border Protection in efforts to bring Mr. Vayeghan back to the United States as per the terms of the court’s order.” 

She would not elaborate, and a Customs and Border Protection spokesman declined to answer questions, citing privacy rules. ACLU attorney Peter Bibring acknowledged that lawyers for Vayeghan coordinated with government officials in the U.S. and abroad to plan his return, but he declined to detail those efforts.

As they awaited a required stamp in his passport, Vayeghan and his relatives repeatedly hugged at an airport Starbucks, where some employees offered them free food. He held his brother tightly, and spoke excitedly about reuniting with his son.

Activists who staged large-scale weekend protests against the executive order, which paralyzed traffic at the airport, approached to hug the family.

“We were the loneliest people in the world on Friday,” said Vayeghan’s niece Marjan. “But this is the L.A. I know and love.”

Times staff writer Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.

james.queally@latimes.com

joel.rubin@latimes.com

Twitter: @jamesqueallyLAT and @joelrubin

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UPDATES:

6:25 p.m.: This article was updated with some additional background about the White House executive order and some minor rewriting.

4:00 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from LAX after Vayeghan arrived as well as a statement from the U.S. Justice Department.

2:05 p.m.: This article was updated with a quote from Vayeghan and a no comment from a Customs and Border Patrol spokesman.

1:40 p.m.: This article was updated with details of Vayeghan’s arrival at LAX.

This article was originally published at 7 a.m.

An earlier version of this story misspelled attorney Talia Inlender's last name as Inlander.
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