NEW YORK — A federal judge blocked part of President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration Saturday evening, ordering that refugees and others trapped at airports across the United States should not be sent back to their home countries. But the judge stopped short of letting them into the country or issuing a broader ruling on the constitutionality of Trump’s actions.
Lawyers who sued the government to block the White House order said the decision, which came after an emergency hearing in a New York City courtroom, could affect an estimated 100 to 200 people who were detained upon arrival at U.S. airports in the wake of the order that Trump signed Friday afternoon, a week into his presidency.
Judge Ann M. Donnelly of U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, who was nominated by former President Barack Obama, ruled just before 9 p.m. that implementing Trump’s order by sending the travelers home could cause them irreparable harm.
Dozens of people waited outside of the courthouse chanting, “Set them free!” as lawyers made their case. When the crowd learned that Donnelly had ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, a rousing cheer went up in the crowd.
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Although none of the detainees will be sent back immediately, lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case expressed concern that all those at the airports would now be put in detention, pending a resolution of the case. Inviting the lawyers to return to court if the travelers were detained, Donnelly said, “If someone is not being released, I guess I’ll just hear from you.”
Trump’s executive order on immigration quickly reverberated across the United States and the world Saturday, slamming the border shut for an Iranian scientist headed to a lab in Massachusetts, a Syrian refugee family headed to a new life in Ohio and countless others.
Around the nation, security personnel at major international airports had new rules to follow, although the application of the order appeared uneven. Humanitarian organizations delivered the bad news to overseas families that had overcome the bureaucratic hurdles previously in place and were all set to travel. And refugees on flights when the order was signed Friday found themselves detained upon arrival.
“We’ve gotten reports of people being detained all over the country,” said Becca Heller, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project. “They’re literally pouring in by the minute.”
There were numerous reports of students attending U.S. universities who were blocked from returning to the United States from visits abroad. One student said in a Twitter post that he would be unable to study at Yale. Another who attends the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was refused permission to board a plane. A Sudanese graduate student at Stanford University was blocked for hours from entering the country.
Human rights groups reported that legal permanent residents of the United States who hold green cards were being stopped in foreign airports as they sought to return from funerals, vacations or study abroad. There was widespread condemnation of the order, from religious leaders, business executives, academics, political leaders and others. Trump’s supporters offered praise, calling it a necessary step on behalf of the nation’s security.
The president’s order, enacted with the stroke of a pen at 4:42 p.m. Friday, suspended entry of all refugees to the United States for 120 days, barred Syrian refugees indefinitely and blocked entry into the United States for 90 days for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
The Department of Homeland Security said the order also barred green card holders from those countries from re-entering the United States. In a briefing for reporters, White House officials said that green card holders from the seven affected countries who are outside the United States would need a case-by-case waiver to return.
Legal residents who have a green card and are in the United States should meet with a consular officer before leaving the country, a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told reporters. Officials did not clarify the criteria that would qualify someone for a waiver, other than that it would be granted “in the national interest.”
But the week-old administration appeared to be implementing the order chaotically, with agencies and officials around the globe interpreting it in different ways.
The Stanford student, Nisrin Omer, a legal permanent resident, said she was held at Kennedy International Airport in New York for about five hours but was eventually allowed to leave the airport. Others who were detained appeared to be still in custody or sent back to their home countries.
Asked about Friday’s immigration order, Trump suggested an orderly rollout. “It’s not a Muslim ban, but we were totally prepared,” he said. “It’s working out very nicely. You see it at the airports; you see it all over.”
White House aides claimed Saturday that there had been consultations with officials at the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security about carrying out the order. “Everyone who needed to know was informed,” one aide said.
But that assertion was denied by multiple officials with knowledge of the interactions, including two officials at the State Department. Leaders of Customs and Border Protection and of Citizenship and Immigration Services — the two agencies most directly affected by the order — were on a telephone briefing on the new policy even as Trump signed it Friday, two officials said.
At least one case prompted a legal challenge as lawyers representing two Iraqis held at Kennedy Airport filed a motion early Saturday seeking to have their clients released. They also filed a motion for class certification, in an effort to represent all refugees and other immigrants who they said were being unlawfully detained at ports of entry.
Shortly after noon, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, an interpreter who worked for more than a decade on behalf of the U.S. government in Iraq, was released. After nearly 19 hours of detention, Darweesh began to cry as he spoke to reporters, putting his hands behind his back and miming handcuffs.
“What I do for this country? They put the cuffs on,” Darweesh said. “You know how many soldiers I touch by this hand?”
The other man the lawyers are representing, Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi, who was en route to Houston, was released Saturday night.
“I was very scared. I was 100 percent sure I wasn’t coming in,” he said. “I saw people being sent back.”
Before the two men were released, one of the lawyers, Mark Doss, a supervising attorney at the International Refugee Assistance Project, asked an official, “Who is the person we need to talk to?”
“Call Mr. Trump,” said the official, who declined to identify himself.
It was unclear how many refugees and other immigrants were being held nationwide in relation to the executive order although there were reports of detentions from the airports serving Atlanta, Houston, Detroit and Washington, D.C., among others.
A Christian family of six from Syria said in an email to Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., that they were being detained at Philadelphia International Airport Saturday morning despite having legal paperwork, green cards and visas that had been approved.