I arrived at Dulles International Airport last Sunday afternoon a little after 1 p.m., expecting to find a small group of 20 or 30 people awaiting relatives from the seven countries targeted by President Donald Trump’s immigration order. Instead, there were more than 200, some protesters with signs, others in business dress with name labels that included the phrase “immigration lawyer.”
The rest were families in crisis. I first encountered a family with a large photo of their 30-ish brother, holder of a permanent resident green card, now in an intensive care unit in Washington. His mother, a citizen of Sudan, had secured a visa from our embassy there to visit her seriously ill son. She was turned away at the airport in Dubai, under Trump’s new order.
I served as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein from 2009 to 2013, where consular affairs was the most labor-intensive activity in our embassy. Visas for anyone from a Middle Eastern country were extremely difficult to obtain – the Department of Homeland Security routinely required six months to a year to vet each candidate thoroughly. Our embassy could not issue a green card, the document of permanent residency in the U.S.; only the Department of Homeland Security could do that, again only after very extensive research.
At Dulles, attorney after attorney complained to me that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol would not allow them access to the holding rooms, where travelers may have been detained. With Reps. Gerry Connolly, John Delaney and Jamie Raskin, we attempted to speak with the CBP staff at Dulles. Dulles Airport police respectfully denied us access, under orders to allow no one to make contact with CBP. We asked the deputy chief to invite CBP officials to come to the concourse to speak with us, or to permit us to come to their office. We were met with dead silence from the CBP.
I was then introduced to a young man, a green card holder, who had worked for the U.S. Army for some years in Iraq. He had immigrated to Virginia a few years ago, and his two-year-old son was born here. But his Iraqi wife, also a green card holder, was in Iraq with their son, visiting her mother, now dying of cancer. He cried in my arms for many minutes, while I tried to reassure him that the initial interpretation of Trump’s order on Friday – that no permanent residents would be admitted from the seven countries – had been reinterpreted by the White House to allow green-carded residents permission to re-enter. His grief and anxiety were a direct consequence of the evolving confusion around the executive order.
An American citizen of Pakistani ancestry asked me about his mother, who had just departed this past week for a two-month trip to visit family in Pakistan. Would she be allowed to come back to the U.S., and what was my advice? All I could tell him was that Pakistan was not on the restricted list today, but that it might well be in the weeks to come; perhaps the safest bet would be to ask her to fly home now, while it was still possible.
One of the many passionate volunteer immigration lawyers at Dulles pulled me over to a distressed father, with his two small children, a boy and a girl, both sobbing. Their mother, a Sudanese immigrant and permanent resident of the U.S. working as a a Ph.D. in Northern Virginia, had been taken off the plane and was being detained somewhere in the bowels of the airport. CBP had taken away her green card and her passport, but she was able to call us on her cell phone. With four immigration attorneys, we again approached the access to the CBP office, handing a highlighted copy of Judge Leonie Brinkema’s temporary restraining order requiring the federal government to “permit lawyers access to all legal permanent residents being detained at Dulles International Airport.” The deputy chief cooperatively moved to the CBP office with our appropriate demand, only to return a minute later to announce that CBP had decided to release her immediately, and no lawyer was required.
I then met a Syrian couple who had just learned that their brother, his wife and their two children had been denied boarding for a U.S. flight in Istanbul. All four had been issued refugee visas by a U.S. consulate overseas. I could only acknowledge, that, yes, the Trump executive order applied to this family, and there was nothing we could do but mount legal challenges in the short run.
The afternoon and early evening were spent with human story after story, some tragic, others sad, all frightened. But when I left around 5:30pm, the crowd of 200 had multiplied to well over 500, and extended halfway down the huge Dulles arrival concourse.
We cannot allow this disaster to continue. Last year, worried about the possibility of a situation just like this, I introduced a bill called the Freedom of Religion of Act. The bill would make it illegal to deny admission to the U.S. on the basis of religion. I reintroduced that bill last week, at a press conference with words of support from colleagues in Congress, Gold Star Father Khizr Khan, and supporting organizations, including the ACLU. I also cosponsored a bill, the Statue Of Liberty Values Act, to rescind this executive order which runs against America’s values.
Religious freedom is a defining value of the United States, guaranteed by the Founding Fathers in the First Amendment to the Constitution. My legislation won’t erase the pain from President Trump’s ban, but it will ensure that this sort of immoral action never happens again and show the world that America still honors its founding principles.
Spirited American democracy is alive, and has much to do.