Not one of the 17 people held for questioning at O’Hare International Airport Saturday was a refugee—or a terrorist for that matter. Most of them were visa or green card holders who had previously been granted long-term or permanent residency in the United States. Two of them were babies who had been born in the U.S. and who had been taken to Iran to meet their extended families. But all had the misfortune of being in transit on Friday evening when President Donald Trump issued his executive order banning nationals of six mostly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. for the next 90 days. The order also banned the entry of refugees for the next 120 days, and Syrian refugees indefinitely.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Kevin Herrera, one of dozens of lawyers who camped out in O’Hare’s international terminal Saturday afternoon and evening after the International Refugee Assistance Project issued an urgent call for volunteers. Lawyers stood in the terminal holding handmade cardboard signs announcing that they were available to help people with family members held in customs. Herrera had been working with a man whose father was on a flight scheduled to arrive at 1:35 PM. The son had received a text saying the plane had landed, then nothing but radio silence for more than five hours.
“The presumption is that they took his visa,” Herrera said.
Though officially the travelers were being held for “secondary questioning,” lawyers thought it was more like detention.
“If you’re there for six hours . . .” said attorney Fiona McEntee, ” . . . with no access to attorneys,” added attorney Kathleen Vannucci, “and they won’t let you call your family members,” continued McEntee. “Well, if it looks like a duck . . . it’s detention.”
While the lawyers huddled over their laptops, drafting writs of habeas corpus demanding the travelers’ release from custody, an estimated 3,000 protesters gathered outside Terminal 5 to join in a rally organized that afternoon by a coalition of advocacy groups.
Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, founder and president of the Syrian Community Network, explained that since the Syrian civil war began in 2012, there have been 4.8 million registered refugees globally. Germany has taken in around 600,000, and Canada around 60,000. The U.S. has taken in just 18,000, she said. In November 2015, Governor Bruce Rauner announced that he was “temporarily suspending” resettling Syrian refugees in Illinois.
Several of the speakers at the impromptu O’Hare rally were the children and grandchildren of immigrants and refugees, including Daniel Biss, a state senator whose grandparents had arrived in Chicago from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Biss pointed out the terrible irony that Trump had enacted the ban on Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day intended to make the world remember the consequences of isolationism (“America first!” as Trump crowed in his inaugural address) and the failure to take in the world’s refugees.
Ahmed Rehab, executive director of CAIR Chicago, announced that the Muslim civil rights group intended to file a lawsuit Sunday challenging the ban.
“The Muslim ban, the Mexican ban,” Rehab said. “Donald Trump is attacking communities one at a time through various means. Stand together!”
The rally started at 6 PM, but at 6:30 protesters were still arriving, and speeches were drowned out by chants of “No hate! No fear! Immigrants are welcome here!” and “Build the wall? Tear it down!” and “Hands too small to build a wall!” Gradually the rally, which had been contained to the sidewalk outside the terminal, morphed into a full-fledged march that spread out to the exit ramp—where protesters sat down and blocked traffic for half an hour—and then into the terminal itself. Though Chicago police were present, the protest was peaceful, and marked by the same spirit of generosity and solidarity as the Women’s March last week. There were no arrests.
Around 8 PM, word came that Ann Donnelly, a federal judge in Brooklyn, had ruled in an emergency hearing that travelers with visas should be permitted to enter the U.S., particularly if returning to their countries of origin would cause them “substantial and irreparable injury.”
However, by that point, only two travelers to O’Hare had been released, and according to lawyers, at least one had already been deported—a Syrian woman living in Saudi Arabia who was on her way to Valparaiso, Indiana, to visit her mother, who was suffering from breast cancer. It would take nearly two and a half more hours before word came that the remaining travelers were allowed to leave the airport. The protesters remained the entire time, marching, chanting, and cheering loudly whenever anyone appeared through the door leading to customs.
“We won today,” said Rachel Brady, one of the volunteer lawyers. “We’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
But other lawyers were not so optimistic. The 90- and 120-day bans meant that travelers, even those with visas, could be stranded outside the U.S. indefinitely. Ian Wagreich was concerned that many employers, especially those at small companies, wouldn’t be able to hold jobs open for that long.
“This is really bad for business,” he said. “Thousands of people are having to change their flights and lives already.”
RefugeeOne, a resettlement agency in Uptown, was expecting 15 refugee families in the next month. One arrived on Friday afternoon. The others, which had gone through the 18-month screening process, obtained their visas, bought their airline tickets, sold all their possessions, and traveled to foreign airports where sponsors had arranged living arrangements, would not be able to board their scheduled flights to the U.S.
“The ban is closing the door in the face of the most vulnerable population,” said Zaher Sahloul, a Syrian immigrant who became a U.S. citizen 30 years ago. He’s a doctor who has returned to Syria frequently to provide medical care, most recently five months ago, just before the siege of Aleppo.
“This is not a ban against Muslims,” he continued. “It’s a ban against humanity.”
Trump announced Sunday morning that he was scaling back the ban, and that permanent U.S. residents with green cards will be allowed reentry.
The protests at O’Hare are scheduled to continue Sunday at 6 PM, outside Terminal 5.