Gov. Wolf welcomes Syrian family in Allentown -- and pays airfare

Gov. Tom Wolf, Mathyo Assali, who just arrived in the United States, and Sarmad Assali (right), who lives here in Allentown, speak to the press about the Assali family being turned away from the United States at the Philadelphia International Airport, in Allentown, PA, February 6, 2017.

ALLENTOWN — When a short white bus drove through a tree-lined Allentown neighborhood of large homes and three-car garages and pulled into a driveway Monday afternoon, Gov. Wolf was waiting to welcome its Syrian passengers to the state and the country.

"You've been through a lot,” he told six smiling members of the Assali family, and congratulated them for their "perseverance."

"It's nice to have you here," he added. "Thank you for wanting to come to Pennsylvania."

This was their second attempt to reach relatives in this Lehigh County city. More than a week earlier, brothers Basam and Hassan Assali; their wives, Jozfin and Jurfeet; and Hassan's two children had been turned away at Philadelphia International Airport. All had valid visas, but President Trump's travel ban had rendered the documents meaningless.  Back they went to Syria.

“Last week, I was angry and I was depressed,” Sarmad Assali, who welcomed her relatives into her home, told about a dozen reporters gathered on her driveway. She said that on the journey from the airport, “I kept looking around and I’m thinking, ‘This is a dream.’ But you know what? Today the dream came true.”

To get back to America, the family had to travel to Beirut, then to Abu Dhabi and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, and finally to Allentown, according to Wolf.

During the time the family was struggling to get back to Pennsylvania, Wolf said he would pay their travel expenses should they would be able to return. Wolf will make good on that, a source close to the governor said Monday night. He said the governor would personally reimburse the family for the six plane tickets they bought to get to the United States. A friend of the governor who asked to remain anonymous  also chipped in, paying for the van that took the family from New York to Allentown, the source said. 

Jonathan Grode, a lawyer assisting the family, said the total cost of the tickets was about $20,000.

"Gov. Wolf, he is like a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy," Grode said. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the Assalis arrived in Allentown, the family gathered inside the house to eat lunch together, a meal they had begun to doubt they would ever share in the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While they were sitting down for their long-awaited family reunion, Justice Department lawyers on the West Coast were scrambling to meet a filing deadline at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The government lawyers asked the court to lift the restraining order that a lower federal court imposed Friday on the Trump administration.  The lower court blocked two parts of the president’s executive order: the 90-day ban on immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Syria, and the 120-day bar on admission of all refugees.

A three-judge panel of the appellate court is expected to hear arguments on those matters Tuesday.

In Harrisburg, Attorney General Josh Shapiro outlined what he described as his office’s leading role in organizing a brief attacking the travel ban that was co-signed by the Democratic attorneys general of 15 other states.

Trump’s order “makes us less safe, tramples on our rights, and harms Pennsylvania residents and institutions,” Shapiro said at a news conference.

He said that confusion over how to implement Trump’s order had “unleashed global chaos,” and that “further chaos would ensue” if the travel ban was reinstituted.

He said the executive order, which the president has said can make case-by-case exceptions for Christian minorities coming from predominantly Muslim countries, “erodes religious liberties” in the U.S., “erodes civil rights, and erodes the ability of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to look after those interests,” Shapiro said.

On a practical level, he said, the order does economic harm to Pennsylvania, as well as the other states joined in the brief.

Home Countries of Refugees Who Resettled in Pa.

From 2007 through 2016, over 25,000 refugees from 56 countries or territories have resettled in Pennsylvania.
Staff Graphic

In Pennsylvania, Shapiro said, the order disrupts the ability of colleges and universities to meet their staffing needs, and the visa needs of foreign students. He said, for example, that 227 students from the seven predominantly Muslim countries targeted in the order pay $11.1 million in tuition to Pennsylvania State University  — money that will be lost if they are barred from traveling.

He said the states of the 16 participating attorneys general “stand together in facing concrete, immediate and irreparable harm from this order.”

Also in Harrisburg Monday, a state Senate panel gave preliminary approval to a bill that would withhold state money from municipalities that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

If passed by the legislature, the bill would make cities and counties that refuse to enforce federal immigration orders ineligible for state grants.

The legislation requires municipalities to alert federal immigration authorities when they have in their custody an undocumented immigrant whom federal authorities are seeking. According to a Senate Appropriations Committee analysis, it could result in the state withholding up to $1.3 billion from places known to be so-called sanctuary municipalities, which would include Philadelphia.

The committee passed the bill on a party-line vote, with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed.

 Karen Langley of the Harrisburg bureau and staff writer Jason Laughlin contributed to this article.