2 Christian Syrian families detained at PHL, returned to Qatar; other migrants detained at PHL

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Mayor Jim Kenney stands nearby as hundreds of people participate in a peaceful demonstration against President Trump's immigration policies at International Arrivals Hall inside Philadelphia International Airport, Saturday Jan. 28, 2017.

After a New York City judge Saturday night put a stay on President Trump’s executive order banning certain refugees and immigrants from entering the United States, about five travelers remained held at Philadelphia International Airport as attorneys filed their own federal petition to keep them in the country.

The order by Judge Ann M. Donnelly of Brooklyn Federal Court came too late for two Christian Syrian immigrant families who were sent back to Doha, Qatar after being held at PHL on Saturday morning.

Their experiences and reports of other detainees triggered protests Saturday night at the airport that drew about 200 participants, as well as Mayor Kenney, Gov. Wolf, members of Congress and attorneys who arrived to aid the migrants.

Minutes before the federal stay was issued in New York, Pennsylvania officials met with customs officials and then reported that attorneys were petitioning a federal court in Philadelphia to get a hearing for a stay here of President Trump's order.

"Over the course of the evening and into the morning, we will have the results of the hearing," said Mayor Jim Kenney, speaking to reporters just before 9 p.m. "That's where we are right now." 

Civil rights lawyers were waiting to file a petition in Philadelphia as the ACLU continued talks late Saturday night with the U.S. Attorney's Office to determine whether the New York judge's ruling would apply to the detainees in Philadelphia.

The detainees arrived on a Qatar Airways flight Saturday morning. The plan was to remove them from the country Sunday, but a stay would allow them to remain in the United States while a judge hears their petitions, said Ayodele Gansallo, a senior staff attorney for HIAS Pennsylvania, one of two attorneys who reportedly petitioned a Philadelphia judge for the stay.

In Brooklyn, Donnelly ruled just before 9 p.m. that travelers stuck at airports should not be sent back to their countries. She said implementing Trump's order by sending them home could cause them "irreparable harm," but stopped short of letting them into the country, The New York Times reported.

It was not clear whether the ruling in New York will be what is needed for the detainees in Philadelphia, said lawyer Jonathan Feinberg, of the civil rights law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing and Feinberg, who said a colleague was speaking with an Eastern District federal judge and a U.S. Attorney’s Office representative just before 10 p.m. 

"The most important part is that we have the legal process going. We have a federal judge waiting to hear a stay," said Rep. Bob Brady (D., Philadelphia). "They are safe, they are comfortable, they'll be okay, hopefully we'll get our stay," he said of the immigrants. 

"These are people who have gone through all the hurdles, and they have chosen to come and live with us here in Pennsylvania, and I say to them, you are welcome here," said Gov. Tom Wolf, who, like Sen. Bob Casey, in town for the Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball, arrived at the airport in a tuxedo.

Mayor Jim Kenney said just before 9 p.m. that the number of detainees remained unconfirmed, but that he was "pretty sure" one of the detainees was a man who worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Iraq or Afghanistan. 

Attorney Caitlin Barry, a Villanova University law professor, said she was representing one person who was detained Saturday; the person's family are U.S. citizens and the family did not want to be identified. 

 Molly Tack-Hooper, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said she has heard of five people who were being detained at the airport as of Saturday night. They include three adults who also came into Philadelphia on the morning flight from Doha, but Tack-Hooper said she did not know their nationalities or immigration status.

One of the other people reportedly being detained is an Iraqi with a certain type of visa to enter, she said. She did not have any information on the fifth detainee. 

As for the two Syrian families who were sent back to the Middle East, a relative of theirs,  Sarah Assali, 25, of Allentown, said Saturday that they were traveling with immigrant visas and were approved for green cards. Their efforts to enter the United States had been in the works since 2003, she said, and the families were approved to enter in 2016; they stayed back to spend the Christmas holidays in Syria, or they would already have been here.

[Editor's Note: This article has been corrected to reflect that the Assalis received their visa approvals in 2016, not 2015.]

Assali said her six relatives — two of her uncles and their wives, as well as a 17-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter of one of the couples — had arrived in Philadelphia on Saturday morning from a 15-hour flight from Doha. They are from Damascus.

Trump on Friday signed an executive order suspending admission to the U.S. by all refugees for 120 days, barring Syrian refugees indefinitely, and barring entry for 90 days to any citizens from the predominantly Muslim countries of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen.

The two Syrian families were among various migrants flying into the U.S. nationwide who were detained Friday or Saturday. At New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, 12 people, including two with ties to the U.S. military, were detained, according to news reports.

Camera icon JOSEPH kaczmarek / For the Inquirer, Daily News
People participate in a peaceful demonstration against President Trump's immigration policies Saturday evening at International Arrivals Hall inside Philadelphia International Airport.

Assali said of her relatives from Syria: "They left from Doha yesterday [Friday]" and arrived at the Philadelphia airport about 7:45 a.m. Saturday. 

She said her father was driving from Allentown to the Philadelphia airport to pick up his brothers and their families on Saturday morning when he received a call from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent telling him that his relatives had been denied entry. Her father then drove back home.

She said her uncles, whose spoken English is not good, weren't allowed by federal authorities to call her father.

Her uncles and their families were then put back on a Qatar Airways flight back to Doha. The flight was scheduled to leave Philadelphia at about 9:30 a.m., but left later in the morning, she said.

It wasn't until they were on the plane that they were able to call her father, she said.

"They were told their paperwork is not valid," she said. "They weren’t told what or why." 

"My uncle didn’t understand the situation," she said. "He thought he would be imprisoned." So he didn't argue and agreed to leave, she said.

Damascus is about 1,000 miles from Doha. She said she didn't know if her relatives had driven to the Doha airport or if they had flown from Damascus.

"Frustration, confusion, fear" are what her uncles and their families feel, she said.

Her 58-year-old father, who was taking a nap when a reporter called, is "definitely angry, he’s upset," Assali said. Her father had bought a second home in Allentown for his brothers, one older and one younger, and their families. 

As for Assali, she said of her emotions: "It’s kind of a whirlwind. A lot of anger. It's a very stressful situation. Because the executive order is unethical. It’s unconstitutional."

Her relatives weren't fleeing Syria as refugees, she said.

Her own immediate family members are U.S. citizens. "My family is Christian Orthodox," she said. "I was born here. My mom came here when she was in eighth grade. My dad came in 1990."

"We signed the petition to bring them over [here] in 2003," she said. After a long vetting process, the immigrant visas were approved in 2016. "They had to go first to Amman, Jordan, to get interviews and medical appointments to finalize the documentation. A few months ago, everything was approved and set. They chose to spend the holidays in Syria. They held off the flight for the holidays."

Mary Flannery, an airport spokeswoman, said the area of the airport where international arrivals come in "is under federal control."

Any decision to detain or deny someone entry was not made by employees of the airport, which is operated by the city. She said she could not confirm if anyone was detained or denied entry.

A local U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman did not immediately return a phone call.

Tack-Hooper, of the ACLU's Philadelphia office, said she spoke with Assali's brother on Saturday and is trying to help the family.

The national ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the president's order and asked for it to be certified nationwide as a class action, she said.

"But in the meantime, until a judge certifies it as a class action, we’re looking at individual remedies for people we have learned about who have been turned away," she said. She declined to comment publicly on what possible remedies she discussed with the Assali family to try to help their relatives.

Mayor Kenney on Saturday issued the following statement: "I am sickened by reports that federal officials, without knowledge or cooperation of PHL Airport staff, detained and then turned away two Syrian families. By several accounts, these families waited months to obtain the proper documentation so they could come to our country legally.

"And still, they were sent back to a war-torn nation that has used chemical warfare against its own people. The Trump administration very well may have just given these families a death sentence."

"Banning immigrants and refugees is not only unjustifiably cruel, it also puts Americans at home and serving abroad at great risk," Kenney added. "By refusing to allow entry to any immigrants from these seven nations, even those who have helped American troops as interpreters and fixers, we are enabling anti-American radicalization and endangering the lives of many."

He said Philadelphia has welcomed about 260 refugees in recent years from these now-banned nations.

Local groups concerned with the impact of Trump's new order will be protesting at 2 p.m. Sunday at Philadelphia International Airport's Terminal A-West for international arrivals.

The groups, including the local chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Philadelphia Student Union, said in a Facebook statement: “We will NOT be silent as human beings fleeing war and terror are denied sanctuary." They said they will “call on all relevant federal, state and local government agencies to refuse compliance with the racist, inhumane, and illegitimate executive orders issuing from this shameful president.”

Elana Baurer, one of the local organizers at Jewish Voice for Peace and its national director of operations and general counsel, said by phone Saturday that the purpose of the protest will be "to stop and stand up against the racist, Islamophobic and anti-immigrant executive orders, which are unlawful and racist."

"We’re committed to protesting and to stop the hateful racism that’s happening at our airport and around the country," she said.

Jonathan Grode, a Center City Philadelphia immigration lawyer at the firm Green and Spiegel, who is also the liaison with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency for the local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said Saturday that the local AILA chapter will be holding an emergency meeting Sunday to address what is happening.

“Everyone’s banding together as swiftly as possible,” he said.

The local AILA chapter’s advice to non-U.S. citizens affected by Trump’s executive order is this: “People from these countries should not depart at this juncture for fear that they would not be readmitted to the United States,” Grode said.

He said there is only one flight each day from Doha to Philadelphia.

Asked earlier Saturday if the AILA has reached out to the Customs and Border Protection agency, he said: “We’ve reached out to them. No formal contact has been made at this point.”

“The executive order that was released was very vague,” Grode said. “It seems it is affecting permanent residents, people with temporary visas and refugees.”

Two Iraqi men who arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Friday night were also among those detained.

Hameed Khalid Darweesh, who worked as interpreter for the U.S. during the Iraq War, was released Saturday afternoon by federal officials without explanation.

"America is the land of freedom," Darweesh told reporters at the airport after being released. "America is the greatest nation."

A source told CNN that Darweesh will be allowed to stay in the U.S. under provisions in Trump's order that allow the State and Homeland Security Departments to admit individuals into the U.S. on a case-by-case base.

According to a suit filed against Trump and the U.S. government, Darweesh held a special immigrant visa, which was granted the day of Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20, due to his work for the U.S. government, CNN reported.

Darweesh’s attorney said 11 other people were still being detained at JFK as of Saturday afternoon, CNN said.

One of them is Haider Sameer Abdulkaleq Alshawi, who was also named as a plaintiff in the suit along with Darweesh. Alshawi worked for a United States contractor in Iraq, the New York Times reported.