#NoBanNoWall: Tales from the Travel Ban Protests

On January 27, 2017, President Trump signed Executive Order 13769 barely a week after being inaugurated as the nation’s 45th president. The order, titled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry To The United States,” issued a number of restrictions for entry into the United States. The order:

  1. Suspended for 120 days the entry of all refugees,
  2. Suspended indefinitely the entry of all Syrian refugees,
  3. Suspended for 90 days the entry of all non-U.S. citizens from seven Muslim majority countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.

The Trump administration argued the so-called travel ban was necessary to prevent terrorism, and was not a religious ban.

The backlash was immediate, and it was overwhelming.

The next day, Saturday, word had spread that several Iraqi refugees had been detained at JFK International Airport in Queens, New York.  Over the course of the day, hundreds of protesters spontaneously arrived at JFK to demonstrate in front of the airport and demanded the release of the refugees and an immediate end to the travel ban. The hashtag #NoBanNoWall became a rallying cry for activists across social media.

The JFK protest spread to airports across the country, including Denver International Airport where protesters initially occupied the main concourse area, demanding the release of anyone who was being detained at the border checkpoint because of the order.

Later Saturday night, A federal judge in NYC issued an emergency stop to deportations and detention of persons who had already arrived in the U.S. legally, but the order did not apply to anyone outside the United States. The chaos and confusion of the sloppily drafted ban caused chaos and confusion around the world, and thousands were stuck in ports of call, waiting to find out if they would ever be allowed in.

On Sunday, the protests continued around the country. Protesters arrived at the plaza outside DIA’s main terminal, as Denver police had banned any protests inside the terminal, threatening arrest for anyone seen demonstrating or even just holding signs. Click here to be taken to taken to the exact spot the protests took place, via Google Earth.

#NoBanNoWall protesters at Denver International Airport. Jan. 29, 2017. Credit: Deepan Dutta

Though fewer in number than the day before, the protesters were still very vocal and very motivated. They chanted and sang peacefully, and there was no interaction with the Denver police or airport security. Facebook Live captured the protests as they happened; including a powerful moment when an man came forward to share the story of his wife, who was being shut out of the country because of the ban.

The Iranian man with the green sign, Mehdi (fearing for his and his wife’s safety, he has asked his last name not be used) had driven down all the way from Laramie, Wyoming to take part in the protests at DIA. He did not know what else to do in his grief, having spent the last day and night crying in anguish.

His story inspired other protesters to open up and start conversations with each other.

A former Tea Party activist brought his two young children along and declared that Trump was a dictator who did not represent him or his values.  He went as far as to apologize on behalf of the country to Mehdi for what he was going through.

Emad Alayoubi, a Muslim American actor with family from Syria, had never taken part in a protest before, and never considered himself to be very politically active. But Trump’s travel ban changed that.  A switch flipped and Alayoubi suddenly became an activist. He resolved not to stop coming out to protests until Trump had resigned or had been impeached.

As perfect strangers got to know each other during the protest, they realized that they cared deeply about the same cause. Ironically enough, President Trump was the single unifying force behind all of it.

Unfortunately for the president, the travel ban was short lived. Several states sued the administration to stop the order, including the state of Washington. On February 3, a week after the ban went into effect, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order on the ban in Washington v. Trump which applied to the entire nation. That meant all travel would continue as normal, and anyone who had already been issued visas would be granted entry to the U.S. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the order on February 9. The Ninth Circuit uploaded full audio of this hearing to YouTube.

Part of the court’s reason for suspending the ban was based on comments made by none other than President Trump himself, on Twitter of all places.

A large part of the case against the ban relied on the assertion that the ban had a “religious animus” – that it was was targeting a particular religion for hostile treatment. Government lawyers tried to convince the court that there was no religious animus, and that the order was entirely based on security reasons. But the state of Washington pointed out several statements the president had made before the order was issued, including tweets, declaring openly how he intended to discriminate against Muslims.

This may be the first time a president’s use of social media may have played a part in bringing down an executive order, or any action of this magnitude.

The travel ban suspension brought the immigration system back to normal.  Visa holders from the targeted nations were able to safely travel to the U.S. and the protesters left the airports. They had won, for the moment at least.

After the ban was lifted I got in touch with Mehdi, the protester whose wife was stranded in Cyprus, to see how it all turned out for her and learn more about their story.(Click on the location names to virtually tour them via Google Earth)

Mehdi is originally from Tehran, Iran and studied at the Sharif University of Technology, where he received Master’s degree in Physics. He came to the U.S. in September, 2011 on a student visa to study for a Ph.D. oil and petroleum engineering at the University of Wyoming.

Mehdi holds his protest sign at Denver International Airport. Jan. 29, 2017. Credit: Deepan Dutta

However, in 2012 the Obama administration imposed new Iranian sanctions which barred visas to any Iranian national studying in any energy-related field. Mehdi was abruptly forced to end his studies in petroleum engineering and pursue another track which got him at the Wyoming Technology and Business Center, where he now works as a business consultant.

One of the reasons it was important to Mehdi to get that job was to have the right status he would need for his wife to apply for a visa. Mrs. V (the name Mehdi asked I refer to her as to keep her anonymous) and Mehdi had been college friends and would have married before Mehdi left for the U.S., but her father received a cancer diagnosis and she had to care for him.  Their plan was for Mehdi to come to the U.S., get settled and then go back to marry Mrs. V. so that they could come to the country together.

However, due to the aforementioned sanctions and Mehdi’s fear of not being allowed back in if he went returned to Iran, he decided to marry Mrs. V. by proxy. Because of the lack of formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran, the couple had to conduct the proxy marriage at Pakistan’s embassies in each country, but once it was done they were legally married.

After the marriage certificate was approved, Mrs. V spent months traveling to U.S. embassies in Armenia, Dubai and Turkey, applying for visas and getting rejected each time for administrative reasons.

In December 2016, Mehdi got a H1-B visa for highly skilled workers, and he immediately made a visa appointment for Mrs. V at the U.S. embassy in Cyprus. Mehdi’s urgency was motivated by Donald Trump’s election the previous month. “I was aware of the situation,” he says.  “I knew who might make these problems.”

Finally, after so many tries and rejections, Mrs. V managed to finally get past the gauntlet of administration and vetting checks and was told that her visa had been approved. She received that e-mail on January 25. She traveled to the U.S. embassy in Cyprus and dropped her passport off to have the visa issued on January 27. Hours later, word of Trump’s travel ban had arrived and the embassy refused to issue the visa or give her passport back. She was stranded, shut out once again, this time maybe forever.

Mehdi went into a deep despair; he spent much of the next day and night crying or watching the news. He believed Trump’s order to be permanent and unchangeable, as that is how it usually went when the Iranian government handed down an edict. His view of America as a generous, welcoming country had been shattered, and started wondering if he should find a new home.

But then he saw the protests on TV. He saw thousands of people spontaneously show up at airports across the country demanding an end to the ban, and it inspired some hope. On Sunday, sick of doing nothing, he decided to get in his car and make the two hour drive down to Denver.

“I came to DIA, I was thinking at least I can be part of this movement,” Mehdi says. “I didn’t know if it would change anything, but at least I could say I did something.”

At DIA, he told the other protesters his story, and lawyers who had set up camp in the airport whisked him away to see if they could help him. At the time, they could not offer much help as the order was still in force around the world, aside from hope that the courts may block the order.

Mehdi went back to Laramie, with some hope, but also cynicism. He figured that if the American government wanted to exclude people like him, surely the Americans around him felt the same way. He decided to poll the students on campus to see how they felt about foreigners and immigrants. Click on the image below to to hear what he found out in an Anchor audio story:

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As it turned out, Mehdi’s rekindled faith in America was validated when the travel ban was suspended by federal courts, and his wife finally got her visa and on a flight to the U.S.

However, even her flight back became a trial of tribulations. A winter storm caused airports to close and thousands of flights to be cancelled, and Mrs. V’s flight got diverted from New York to Washington D.C. Mehdi wound up charging $4,000 to his credit card as he booked, cancelled, and rebooked flights as her arrival destination kept changing.  He was determined to meet her when she landed so that he could make sure he got here safely. Too many things had gone wrong for him to leave it to chance.

But finally, at long last, Mehdi reunited with his wife on February 9.  They are safe and sound together in Wyoming, and for now they have nothing more to worry about.

Executive Order 13769 was suspended on February 3 and was never reinstated. Instead, the Trump administration revoked and replaced it with Executive Order 13780. The replacement is intended to remedy some of the legal problems with the original order, such as allowing people with valid visas to enter the country, but retained language that banned entry to nationals from six of the original seven target countries (Iraq was dropped from the list).

Even with the changes, a federal judge in Hawaii issued a restraining order on the ban the day before it was meant to take effect, and it has also been suspended pending further legal developments.

Regardless of how the travel ban is playing out in the courts, ordinary Americans are still debating the ban in person and on social media.  One such forum is on an app called Countable. Countable allows people to engage with each other about important issues of government and policy in various ways, presenting their arguments for both sides of an issue as well as a way to vote for issues in informal polls. Countable also tracks legislation moving through Congress so that users can easily see what their legislators are up to.

A bill introduced in the House, H.R. 1503 – titled the “Statue of Liberty Values Act 2.0” or “SOLVE Act 2.0” – intends to void the the travel ban as well as withhold federal funds to enforce it. Countable has used the bill as a platform to generally gauge user’s views on the travel ban itself, presenting arguments for and against it. At a certain point a poll will open and users will be able to vote on the issue after having read both sides.

Currently, the most popular arguments in favor of voiding the travel ban are based on compassion and empathy for migrants. The most popular arguments against the bill, or in favor of the travel ban, revolve mainly around national security and the threat imposed by terrorism. The contrasting priorities and attitudes reflect a nation that is deeply divided politically.

What is clear about the reaction to the travel ban is that it inspired a great sense of effusive, spontaneous civic engagement in many Americans – some of whom have never considered themselves political or otherwise engaged with the workings of the system.

The saga also showed how critical social media has become to our public discourse, and will be an implement wielded by both the powerful and the powerless now and in the future.

Whatever happens with the travel ban in the courts, the #NoBanNoWall protests will be remembered as a brief, loud part of American history.


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