Throngs of passionate protesters marched, waved signs and staged a sit-in Sunday at Los Angeles International Airport, demanding President Donald Trump lift his executive order affecting refugees as well as certain nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Chanting “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here” and “Let them in,” the protesters gathered first at the Tom Bradley International Terminal but then marched around the lower Central Terminal Area, forcing rolling closures of some lanes of traffic.
Flight operations were unaffected and no arrests were made, airport officials said. However, traffic was gridlocked at times trying to get into and out of the airport.
Among the thousands of protesters at the airport was Matthew Pagoaga, 32, of Highland Park, who held a sign adorned with an image of the “Star Wars” character Yoda that read “Fear leads to Anger, Anger leads to Hate, Hate leads to Suffering.”
“There’s never been anything so atrocious in our political system, discriminating against whole groups of people based on religion,” he said. “We can’t protect ourselves by hating other people.”
Immigration rights attorneys were on hand in several terminals to advise the families of anyone detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.
The executive order suspends resettlement of Syrian refugees indefinitely, suspends all other refugee resettlement for 120 days, and bans the entry of nationals from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen for 90 days.
A stay issued by a federal judge Saturday night barred U.S. border agents from removing anyone in the U.S. with a valid visa from those seven predominantly Muslim countries. It also covered anyone with an approved refugee application, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
However, the Department Homeland Security said Saturday’s court order affected only a small number of travelers inconvenienced by security procedures. Trump, in a statement, said “this is not about religion” but about “terror and keeping our country safe.”
Iranian couple held
The president’s executive order came while Ayoub Poyanejad, 68, and his wife were in the air on their way from Iran, his daughter said. When they landed at LAX at about 4 p.m. Saturday, they were immediately detained and given little information about what would happen to them, he said.
“We were here 24 hours; (it was) the worst time in my ... life,” he said.
Poyanejad said he acted as a translator for others who were detained. He was allowed to call his family from an official’s phone twice while he and his wife were detained but were initially told not to speak Farsi during the calls, he said.
“The first time they told us, ‘You should speak English; we want to know what you are talking about,’ ” he said.
For the past three months, Poyanejad’s granddaughter had been counting down the days until he arrived, he said. Now, on his second trip to the U.S., he plans to spend several months with his family in Orange County before returning home to Iran.
“I was crying for my granddaughter,” he said. “I don’t want to stay here. I’m visiting. ... My family and I will go back home.”
‘Where were you?’
Fuji Whittenburg, an immigration attorney based in Woodland Hills, said her Iranian-born cousin, Arasto Abedi, who has held a green card since 2009, arrived sometime around 1:15 p.m. Saturday at LAX, was detained, questioned and finally released just before 10 p.m. After visiting Iran on the one-year anniversary of his grandmother’s death, the 21-year-old returned to the U.S. after a layover in Qatar, Whittenburg said.
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“They questioned him for about 20 to 30 minutes about ‘where were you?’ ” and then questioned him a second time, she said. “He waited in a room with about 10 other people. It was like five hours before anyone told them what was going on.”
As the government started implementing the president’s executive order signed Friday, confusion and chaos erupted at airports across the country as Customs and Border Protection officials began to detain travelers.
Were travelers coerced?
In some cases, these travelers were returned to either their home countries or the countries from which they had departed, said Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrants rights for the ACLU of California. Strong-arm tactics were also used on at least some detainees, she said.
“They were detaining them for long periods of time, during which time as the day wore on they began coercing people to withdraw their immigration applications or, in the case of green card holders, ... that they sign a form that would effectively revoke their permanent residency,” Pasquarella claimed.
She said immigration attorneys at LAX heard this from relatives waiting for their family members, even hours after a federal judge in New York issued the emergency stay. But Pasquarella said Sunday she had not heard of any green card holders here who actually signed a form that would have revoked their permanent residency.
Homeland security secretary intervenes
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, in a statement on Sunday, clarified the executive order for customs officers.
“In applying the provisions of the president’s executive order, I hereby deem the entry of lawful permanent residents to be in the national interest,” Kelly said. “Accordingly, absent the receipt of significant derogatory information indicating a serious threat to public safety and welfare, lawful permanent resident status will be a dispositive factor in our case-by-case determinations.”
Among the estimated 100 attorneys stationed at LAX to ensure that CBP officers comply with the federal order blocking the deportation of people with valid visas were Riverside-based Hadley Bajramovic and Nina Bonyak.
Bajramovic said attorneys were being spread out to different terminals where international flights were arriving.
“The crowds are growing, amazing energy,” Bajramovic said via email just after 1 p.m.
Pasquarella said a young Iranian woman coming to the U.S. to study, Sara Yarjani, who had been living in Austria, was forced to withdraw her student visa and was sent back to Copenhagen, Denmark, where her flight had originated, “and that happened hours after the stay had been in place.” Yarjani returned on a 7:40 p.m. flight Saturday from LAX, she said.
“We don’t know how many people signed that; we know a lot of them were asked,” Pasquarella added.
Iranian native Fatema Farmad, who has been a legal permanent resident of the U.S. for about five years and was carrying her infant son, was among those detained over the weekend, according to the ACLU. She had applied for citizenship and her application had been granted, with her swearing-in ceremony scheduled for Feb. 13. She arrived at the airport at about noon Saturday and wasn’t released until early Sunday morning, Pasquarella said.
“They were trying to get her to revoke her green card — she refused,” Pasquarella said.
‘It’s a big mess’
Mohammed Soovman, arriving at LAX from Iran, said he was held for several hours and questioned briefly before he was released.
The 45-year-old green card holder said some people with visas were not allowed to board the flight before it took off in Iran but others with green cards were allowed to travel.
“It’s a big mess. I’m very confused ... because we passed through a lot of processes for receiving our green card,” he said. “We didn’t expect (that we would) have to wait some hours.”
The experience hasn’t changed his plans now that he’s in the United States, however. He still plans to open a martial arts studio somewhere in L.A., he said.
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A large sit-in was held in front of the Customs and Border Protection office on the second floor of the Tom Bradley terminal, which was closed Sunday afternoon, with protesters demanding to know the names of all those who had been detained and calling for their release.
Noah Reich, an Encino resident, stood inside the terminal Sunday with his brother, Adam, holding a sign that read “Two Jewish brothers standing with our Muslim brothers.”
Reich’s grandparents were liberated from a World War II concentration camp and immigrated to the U.S. shortly after, he said. And that family history compelled him to attend the protest Sunday, he said.
“We know the loves that our grandparents and parents were able to have in the U.S. because America welcomed them with open arms, and we know the power of what’s happening,” he said.
Rep. Schiff wants order rescinded
Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, criticized Trump’s executive order as ill-considered, poorly written and “violative of the principles that our nation was founded on: religious liberty.”
“I think this order didn’t go through the usual vetting of the inter-agency process and the result was a mess,” he said.
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The fact that an Iraqi translator, who had worked for the U.S., was detained for a time in New York illustrates that “we have to view people through the perspective of whether they individually pose any risk and not single out large groups of people for suspicion,” he said.
He argued that focusing on the refugee population is not likely to improve the nation’s security since much of the terrorist violence in the U.S. has come from homegrown radicals rather than refugees.
Schiff contended that the executive order should be rescinded and that the administration should work with Congress to explore whether there are additional safeguards that need to be put in place without taking action against an entire religious group “or imposition of some religious test.”
‘We’ll fight back’
One of the protesters, Pepperdine University law student Sarah Husain, said she felt the effect of the executive order firsthand as the daughter of Iranian immigrants.
“We just had enough,” she said. “What Trump is doing is so unconstitutional on every level, and we just couldn’t stay quiet anymore. I’m a U.S. citizen. I’m a Muslim. I’m also a lawyer. My parents have been immigrants and this affects my family, my friends,” Husain said. “We feel like this is just the beginning. It could get worse from here on, and we’re here to tell Trump that we’ll fight back. We’re not just going to take it.”
Alia Delpassand, another Pepperdine law student and daughter of Iranian immigrants, said the order strikes a blow against families like hers that have built lives contributing to the U.S.
“We’re not the enemy,” Dekpassand said. “We’re not here to cause destruction or inflict any sort of terror.”
The Associated Press and staff writers Alejandra Molina and Rachel Uranga contributed to this report.