Hundreds of protestors packed Bush Intercontinental Airport's international terminal Sunday evening to lambaste President Donald Trump's executive order temporarily banning refugees from entering the country.
They chanted against racism and in support for immigrants and refugees, yelling, "No hate! No fear! Immigrants are welcome here!" They hoisted signs bearing, "No Ban, No Wall" and "Immigration built this nation." And when the terminal doors opened, and men and women from abroad walked through, the protestors stopped their chanting, and instead they cheered.
"It makes me proud, because I know what it feels like when you have no option but to leave your country," said Alain Valladares, a Cuban refugee. "Many of the Muslim countries are at war right now. They die, or they come here. We have to welcome them."
The protests reverberated at airports across the country all weekend, after Trump signed the executive order late Friday. The order bans all refugees from entering the country for 120 days; bans Syrian refugees indefinitely; and bans all immigrants and visa holders from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Once citizens of those countries arrived at American airports — among them students, scientists, and even a father on his way to reunite with his wife and seven-year-old son in Houston — U.S. Customs and Border Protection detained them and prepared to send them back to their countries. Those deportations were halted, however, when a federal judge in Brooklyn ruled late Saturday that the government could not remove refugees or immigrants who had arrived in the U.S. legally and who had valid visas. U.S. District Judge Ann M. Donnelly's ruling was in response to a lawsuit and emergency motion filed by two Iraqi immigrants — including the father en route to Houston, Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi — who were defended by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Alshawi's wife, who had worked as an accountant for a U.S. contractor, Falcon Security Group, had been granted refugee clearance to the U.S. after Iraqi insurgents believed she was collaborating with the U.S. military, then killed her brother-in-law in a car bombing, according to the lawsuit. Alshawi was cleared by the U.S. State Department to join his family on January 11, nine days before Trump assumed the presidency. He was expected to fly to Houston Sunday, after being detained for more than 17 hours at JFK International Airport.
To ensure dozens more refugees did not face similar illegal detention, hundreds of attorneys flocked to airports Sunday, setting up camp at coffee shops and restaurants to see that Judge Donnelly's ruling was being followed. At Bush Intercontinental, roughly 20 to 30 immigration and civil rights attorneys clustered at the Starbucks in Terminal E, awaiting word of any new arrivals being detained by Customs and Border Protection, some of them wearing signs around their necks reading "free legal help."
Around 8 p.m. Sunday, multiple attorneys told the Houston Press that 50 people had been detained throughout the day, yet were cleared to be released.
"People are entitled to protections against religious prosecutions, religious tests, and discrimination on the basis of national origin," said ACLU of Texas Staff Attorney Edgar Saldivar, explaining why legal scholars believe Trump's order is unconstitutional. "These are all rights that are enshrined in the Constitution. And what the executive order tries to do is defy our Constitution and these basic principles that we've recognized for years — and that formed the foundation of our democracy, really."
Among the diverse crowd of protestors was a man named Vahid, an Iranian architect who came to the United States in 2008 and who asked that we not use his full name in order to protect his wife. She intends to board a plane February 1 from Iran, where she has been living for the past two months, taking care of her mother as she battles cancer. Vahid's wife is an architect, too, a teacher at Texas A&M University, where she is also studying to obtain her PhD, Vahid said. Before her trip to Iran, Vahid said she had been living in the U.S. on a National Interest Waiver, which is reserved for immigrants who demonstrate that their work is of importance to U.S. citizens. Though now Vahid fears she will not be allowed to re-enter.
He started having nightmares about it, he said — the same one. His wife arrives in the United States with her luggage, and he's at the airport, waiting for her. But then she is detained, turned away, sent back on a plane to the country they fled.
"When I wake up," he said, "what gives me hope is I think that they won't even let her board, so that she doesn't have to be confronted with the humiliation when she arrives. That's what gives me comfort."
The protest ended sharply at 8, as Houston police cleared the area — yet the protestors did not leave the airport, choosing instead to continue their peaceful but vehement demonstration outside of the terminal, as taxis arrived to pick up the newcomers.
Vahid, leaving the crowd, asked where he might find an attorney.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.