At least seven people, all of whom either hold green cards or U.S. visas, were being detained at Los Angeles International Airport on Saturday night as a result of a controversial executive order signed by President Trump, and two people may have been deported.
As activists scrambled to fight for their release on Saturday, hundreds of demonstrators descended on LAX and San Francisco International Airport to rail against Trump’s travel ban, which many argue unfairly targets Muslims.
“We’re a nation of immigrants, not of haters,” Jan Popiden, a 65-year-old Westchester resident, said as she held a sign that read “Stop Trump’s Carnage” at LAX.
The president's executive order, which suspends all refugee entries for 120 days and bars entry to the U.S. for 90 days for those traveling from seven Muslim-majority countries created a scene that was both frantic and somber at LAX.
As throngs of protesters marched through the airport’s Tom Bradley International Terminal, attorneys scrambled to provide aid.
Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrant rights for the ACLU in California, said the advocacy group had filed habeas petitions on behalf of the seven people being detained. Four of those are Iranian, and all hold green cards or U.S. visas, she said.
A woman of Iranian descent who was among the seven was deported by federal officials late Saturday, Pasquarella said. The woman, who has lived in Austria for most of her life, was forced to withdraw her student visa and was deported to Copenhagen, according to Pasquarella. Earlier Saturday, an immigration attorney said a 70-year-old Iranian man was put on a plane out of the country after landing at LAX.
Relatives of those being detained stood nervously throughout the terminal, desperate for any shred of information about the fate of their loved ones. Bayar Yousif had been trading text messages with his brother, Bessar, who had been detained since he landed at 4:30 pm.
“He doesn’t know if they will release him or if they will deport him,” Yousif said.
The brothers immigrated to the U.S. with their parents in 2014 — five years after seeking refugee status — and settled in Fallbrook. All four of them have green cards, but Bessar had traveled to Kurdistan last week, where he got engaged.
Just after 8 pm, Bayar's phone rang. It was his brother, though he didn't have an update on his status.
“What can we do?” Bayar said. “We can’t do anything.”
Around 10 p.m., 28-year-old Neda Daemi was released after a detention that lasted ten hours. The student, who holds a green card and had traveled to Iran five months ago, said she was held with approximately 40 other people, but praised federal authorities for treating them well.
Still, she was shocked to find immigration officials waiting for her when she landed at LAX.
“When I got here and they told me you can’t go in I was like ‘Are you kidding me?’” she said.
Asked what she would say to President Trump, Daemi said she would implore him to "Just think of your own children. would you do the same to your children? Muslims are good people."
It remained unclear exactly how many people had been detained. In addition to the seven detainees the ACLU said it was representing, the legal director of an Los Angeles-based immigrants rights group also told The Times as many as 50 Iranians had been detained on one flight. Representatives of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency did not respond to requests for comment or provide a full tally of those being detained at California airports on Saturday.
Pasquarella said Trump’s rush to enact the executive order has exposed countless people to potentially illegal detentions.
“I would say it has been done without regard to the legality of it. Green-card holders are not only being detained, but they’re being turned around and deported to the country that they came form. It is unlawful,” she said. “Certainly the discriminatory nature of the executive order we think is unlawful.”
An Iranian woman whose citizenship swearing-in ceremony will take place in two weeks was among those detained at LAX on Saturday, according to Jordan Cummings, an immigration attorney. The woman has held a green card for five years, Cummings said.
A federal judge in New York granted an emergency stay of Trump’s order late Saturday night, halting the deportations of any refugees or others who hold valid visas to enter the U.S. It was unclear how that would affect those being held at LAX, or if they would remain in detention while their cases were being considered.
Hundreds of people rallied at Tom Bradley International Terminal to protest the detentions, their chants echoing through the building as they waved candles and held signs denouncing Trump’s decision.
“No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here,” they chanted.
Beverly Weise, 66, said she felt a moral obligation to protest on Saturday after she spent two weeks volunteering at Souda refugee camp in Greece, where 3,000 people from Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia were housed.
“They’re running away from war, persecution — they can’t understand why we are so hostile,” she said. “All they want is a peaceful life.”
Off-duty airport employee Molly O’Leary, 56, said she sees hundreds of immigrants pass through LAX every day.
“I understand being careful,” she said, holding a candle. “I don’t understand outright banning people, innocent people.”
The protesters at LAX erupted in cheers when news broke of the federal court decision staying Trump’s order.
“I think it's wonderful,” Mohi Khairandish, a 52-year-old who immigrated to the U.S. from Iran in 1976 and still has relatives there, said of the stay. “I'm hoping that the ban is proven unconstitutional in general, if necessary, at the Supreme Court because I think it's a very un-American ban.”
While the New York court decision may have marked a victory for opponents of the ban, the emergency stay came too late for some. Kristen Jackson, an attorney with Public Counsel, said attorneys tried to intervene after a 70-year-old Iranian man was held by federal authorities at LAX. His son is an American resident and the father was moving to the U.S., she said.
Jackson and other attorneys filed court papers to try to stop the man’s removal, but he was put on an airplane back to Iran, she said.
“It's been shocking and totally saddening to see this happening,” she said. “But also heartening to see how quickly people are banding together.”
At least 100 people also turned up at San Francisco International Airport to protest the ban on Saturday, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Ten to 15 immigration attorneys had gathered at the airport on Saturday to help detained travelers, many of whom flew in from Iran, Cummings said. Immigration officials were not allowing the detainees to contact their families or seek legal representation, creating a chaotic situation at the terminal, as advocates try to figure out who might need their aid.
“We're literally walking around asking people, are you waiting for someone who has been detained?” she said, describing a scene of worried family members who had arrived bearing flowers and welcome signs for their loved ones.
Attorneys also created a makeshift office at Bradley Terminal to try to aid travelers who were being held by federal officials. The group set up outside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office.
Ashley Rickards, star of the MTV comedy “Awkward,” was one of several dozen people holding lighted candles and signs in support of those being detained inside LAX on Saturday.
“It’s not American,” Rickards said. “I’m not affected personally by what he’s doing, but that's what makes me feel so much more strongly about fighting for everyone else.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti released a statement Saturday in support of peaceful protest at the airport, skewering Trump’s executive order while also urging demonstrators to remain calm.
“Congress outlawed the banning of immigrants by nationality more than 50 years ago, because we have long known that it does not make us safer,” Garcetti said in a statement. “It only fans the flames of hatred that those who wish us harm seek to spread.”
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer Matt Pearce contributed to this report.
10:20 p.m.: This story was updated with comments from a woman who was detained at LAX for ten hours.
9:30 p.m.: This story was updated with comments from the brother of one of the detainees.
8:05 p.m.: This story was updated with additional comments from an ACLU immigration attorney.
6:45 p.m.: This story was updated with additional comments from protesters and attorneys at LAX and news about a federal court decision regarding Trump’s ban.
This story first published at 6:25 p.m.