Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia created chaos after its immediate enforcement at US airports on Saturday. Passengers with valid documentation and green cards were denied entry by immigration officials, a move that was both unconstitutional and illegal.
But Trump and his neofascist advisers did not anticipate the public response to this attack on the foundational ideas of America. At all major airports around the country spontaneous protests grew into thousands chanting: “No hate, no fear. Refugees are welcome here,” and hundreds of lawyers volunteered their services pro bono.
It’s clear that Trump has no idea about how to govern: after one week in power, his administration has provoked a constitutional crisis that pits the immigration bureaucracy, acting for the executive, against the legislature and the courts. While the botched executive order was crafted by neofascist Steve Bannon, it was defended by his tea-party fellow travelers Reince Priebus and Paul Ryan, revealing they are not only out of touch with the ideals and sentiments of the majority of Americans, but actually believe their own lies about public hostility to Muslims.
According to the New York Times, Trump’s rush to enact his campaign promises bypassed all agency and legal reviews, and his executive order on immigration “had the most explosive implications. … But Mr. Bannon, who believes in highly restrictive immigration policies and saw barring refugees as vital to shoring up Mr. Trump’s political base, was determined to make it happen.” What Bannon really wants to achieve is to remove all checks and balances on Trump’s executive power. The sudden dismissal of senior officials at the State Department with no replacements in line, creating a vacuum of leadership, is designed to neutralize the agency in foreign relations. Angela Merkel was forced to “explain” to Trump the obligations of the Geneva refugee convention in a phone call on Saturday, reported the Guardian, in contrast to the toadying of British prime minister Theresa May on her recent visit.
The protests against the ban began on Saturday immediately after the news that two Iraqi refugees were being held at JFK airport in New York. Gothamist reported the crowd numbered about 100 people shortly before 2 p.m., but 40 minutes later had doubled in size; people kept on coming until there were thousands lining the approach road and in the three floors of the parking garage overlooking the terminal. Shortly after noon on Saturday one of the Iraqi travelers was released. After nearly 19 hours of detention, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, an interpreter who worked for more than a decade as a translator for the US in Iraq, began to cry as he spoke to reporters after his humiliation by the authorities. But he said of the protesters who surrounded him, carrying supportive signs, “This is the humanity, this is the soul of America. This is what pushed me to move, leave my country and come here.”
The New York City Taxi Workers Alliance tweeted that they would undertake a one-hour strike on pickups at JFK, to stand in solidarity with the people protesting the immigration ban. At the same time, the ACLU mounted an emergency habeas corpus petition in Brooklyn federal court. An ACLU lawyer, Andre Segura, was at JFK by 1:30 p.m. on Saturday. He said that the outside section of a restaurant in Terminal 4 was “entirely taken over by attorneys,” all working to file petitions for individual clients with the help of the clients’ families. He added, “The dynamic between what was happening inside the terminal with all the attorneys, and outside with massive protests and people holding signs — I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
According to the New York Times, US district Judge Ann Donnelly, “ruled just before 9 p.m. on Saturday that implementing Mr. Trump’s order by sending the travelers home could cause them ‘irreparable harm.’ She said the government was ‘enjoined and restrained from, in any manner and by any means, removing individuals’ who had arrived in the United States with valid visas or refugee status.” She had been alerted by the ACLU to the fact that a Syrian woman with a valid green card attempting to enter the country had been placed on a plane to take her back to Syria within the hour; government lawyers were unable to provide assurances about her safety on her return without additional information. The Guardian reported: “Well that’s exactly why I’m going to grant this stay,” Donnelly replied to muffled cheers in the room.
Back at JFK, a Gothamist reporter described the continuing protest. All of those he spoke to “were angry, many scared. But they didn’t seem demoralized. They stayed, for hours and hours. Pizza boxes became impromptu signs. Parents held onto their kids, fresh out of dance practice in Manhattan or coming from their homes nearby in Queens. A group of Yemeni men stood around, chatting and filming the action. … I assumed the combination of cold and darkness would start to thin the crowd, but people were still showing up at 7 p.m. They flooded out into the streets, still chanting, ‘Fuck the wall, we’ll tear it down’ and ‘Not on our watch, not in our name.’ A few folks danced. It was electric. Around 9 p.m., when word of the stay came through, spread along the human mic, there was just a surging roar, punctuated by people drumming on buckets. The crowd started to sing.”
The judge’s ruling had immediate national repercussions. Minutes later, another judge, Leonie Brinkema of Federal District Court in Virginia, issued a temporary restraining order for a week to block the removal of any green card holders being detained at Dulles International Airport. The Washington Post reported: “In Seattle, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas S. Zilly granted an emergency stay preventing the deportation of two people detained at the Sea-Tac International Airport … Just before 2 a.m. Sunday in Boston, two federal judges ruled for two University of Massachusetts Dartmouth associate professors — Iranian nationals who are permanent legal residents in the United States — who were held at Logan International Airport when they landed after travel for an academic conference. The judges there also put a seven-day restraining order on Trump’s executive action.”
However, the application of the ruling – which prevents deportations of people already on US soil – is being challenged by Homeland Security officials who are still preventing immigration lawyers from contacting people detained at airports. At Dulles airport in Virginia Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials were refusing to comply with the court order on Sunday, denying detained immigrants access to lawyers and turning away members of Congress who demanded officials comply with the federal court.
Becca Heller, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, told reporters on Sunday morning: “Rogue customs and Border Patrol agents continue to try to get people on to planes. A lot of people have been handcuffed, a lot of people who don’t speak English are being coerced into taking involuntary departures.” Heller said in one case, an Iranian Fulbright scholar had been forced on to an Air Ukraine flight at JFK – hours after agents had received the court order to stop. “The flight started taxiing away from the gate,” Heller said. “She was on the phone with us and stood up and asked to get off the flight the crew just ignored her.” The attorneys made desperate calls to higher-level officials, and the plane was eventually turned around on the tarmac and the woman returned to detention.”
The New York Immigration Coalition announced Sunday that volunteer lawyers remain at JFK’s terminals to help travelers caught by the ban, as well as “non-legal volunteers, community members, and even people who had just gotten off their flights [who] offered their time and energy to support the effort.” Camille Mackler, director of the group’s legal initiatives, said: “I think people reacted to how fundamentally un-American the [Executive Orders] and values put forth are. This is what has propelled people to the streets, what has pushed people out there to protest and to keep showing up. Lawyers have a skill and want to put it to work—they came out to the point that we had to turn people away. This all has been overwhelming but amazing.”
Trump’s extremism has alienated Americans from all classes of society, from ordinary members of the public to legislators and lawyers. They immediately understood the deep betrayal of American ideals and the Constitution that Trump and his enablers are trying to impose, and which the authoritarian elements in Homeland Security are following to the detriment of the rule of law. The United States cannot be ruled by fiats or tweets.
Trump’s aggressive executive orders threaten the legitimacy of his government and the presidency itself. The executive branch has been hijacked by a group of dangerous men who have to be stopped before they have inflicted irreparable damage. The ground has been created for a mass movement unlike any seen before that aims to defend the fundamental pluralistic premises of the United States. The left in America and Britain needs to grasp this reality and participate without preconceptions about political leadership. And Theresa May is exposed as the appeaser of a would-be fascist dictator.