(Update: On Sunday around 2 p.m., airport officials said that Customs and Border Protection released those detained at DFW International.)
SMU student Osama AlOlabi wasn’t worried when his parents boarded their flight Friday from Dubai to DFW International Airport. His father, Ahmed Motaz AlOlabi, and mother, Basimal Labbad, have visited several times, using B-1/B-2 tourist visas, while he studies mechanical engineering.
But they became two of 50 travelers detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at DFW, along with scores more at airports across the country, in accordance with President Donald Trump’s executive order seeking to keep visitors from seven Middle Eastern countries out of the United States.
“When they got off their flight, once it was found out they are from Syria, they were taken to a small room,” says AlOlabi, who has an F1 student visa. “There they were told they would have to go back [to their flight’s point of origin].”
At first, he had phone contact with his father. Soon after being taken into the “small room,” he says, his father was told to hang up. The last text he received from his father came at 4:55 p.m., and at midnight, there was still no resolution, despite a federal judge’s ruling Saturday evening for a stay of Trump’s ban.
“[My father] says he was being forced to sign a piece of paper, but he refused to sign and put the pen down on the table in front of him,” Osama AlOlabi says. “He was told that refusing to sign would mean going to jail, but he refuses. I don’t know what’s happened to my parents after that.”
DFW’s chaos, confusion and protest is being repeated at airports across the country as Customs and Border Protection offices are left to interpret judges’ rulings and executive orders. More than 50 travelers met with delays and detention at DFW. Protest organizers late Saturday repeatedly referred to “nine travelers still detained” of the original 50.
Travelers are getting unexpectedly caught in the middle of confusion, and resolutions are being handled on an airport-to-airport and traveler-by-traveler basis.
Trump’s order basically imposed a halt on entry of citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen into the U.S. — even those holding green cards or valid visas. The language in Judge Ann Donnelly’s stay prevents people from being deported, but it may not go far enough to halt future denial of entry, says one Dallas immigration lawyer who came to DFW and Saturday to try to be of legal assistance to those detained.
“The lack of the word ‘release’ in the judge’s order is what is keeping these people in limbo,” says Pallavi Ahluwalia, managing attorney at Ahluwalia Law Offices. “The order says these people can’t be deported, not that they are to be released into the U.S., and CBP offices are being forced to interpret the discrepancy largely on their own.”
Ahluwalia and other lawyers gathered among the protesters at the international arrival hall in DFW International’s Terminal D were not allowed access to those who were detained. Arriving passengers are not technically on American “soil” until they pass through customs, and thus do not have rights to legal counsel while detained.
She said the form Ahmed AlOlabi was being told to sign was probably an “expedited order of removal,” a “withdrawal of his request to be admitted” or an “acknowledgement of inadmissibility.”
Legally speaking, signing such a document would then allow CBP to deport Ahmed and Basimal, despite Judge Donnelly’s and other judges’ rulings being in place.
“When I first came [to the U.S.] in 2014, I was welcomed. I had no problems,” says Osama AlOlabi. “Right now, with the new president, all these bans and orders, it’s not even the same country.”