The uprising of the airports

January 30, 2017

When word spread that Trump had issued his ban on immigrants and refugees, masses of people flew to the airports to protest, write Elizabeth Schulte and Dorian Bon.

IT DIDN'T take Donald Trump long to begin the war on immigrants, refugees and Muslims that he promised during his presidential campaign.

On January 27, he signed an executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. for at least 90 days and suspending the admission of all refugees from any country for at least four months, among other measures.

It also didn't take long for many thousands of people to send a loud message in response: No ban, no wall, let them in!

They mobilized for hastily called emergency protests at airports from New York City to San Francisco and many cities in between. Crowds of people descended on airports the very evening that Trump issued his order, and they continued their protests into the night and the next day, with chants like "No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!" ringing out.

Trump's order, called the "Protection of the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States," prohibits people from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia--a list that the Trump administration says it adopted from Obama administration actions in the "war on terror"--from entering the U.S., whether or not they had legal visas.

Thousands of pro-immigrant protesters flock to JFK Airport in New York City
Thousands of pro-immigrant protesters flock to JFK Airport in New York City

For Sahar Algonaimi, a Syrian national who was traveling to Chicago to visit her mother who is sick with cancer, this meant she was detained for five hours at O'Hare International Airport--and had to return to her home in Saudi Arabia without seeing her family.

The 60-year-old had a visa and a signed letter from a surgeon to immigration officials explaining that Algonaimi was "needed to assist" in the care of her sick 76-year-old mother. But that wasn't enough for U.S. Customs officials. The order Trump signed on Friday bans Syrian refugees from coming to the U.S. indefinitely.

One of the first people detained, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, was an Iraqi interpreter who served the U.S. military for over a decade during the occupation--but he was still caught up in Trump's net. Another victim: Samira Asgari, an Iranian scientist coming to Harvard Medical School to work on a cure for tuberculosis. She said in a tweet: "I was pretty excited to join @soumya_boston's lab but denied boarding due to my Iranian nationality. Feeling safer?"

All this came just days after Trump signed another executive order ordering the Department of Homeland Security to start building a wall on the border with Mexico and to revive old programs for persecuting undocumented immigrants who committed no crime but to seek safety and economic security in the U.S.

WHEN VISA holders on airplanes heard about Trump's order, many froze in fear, terrified about what could happen next. When they arrived at airports in the U.S., they faced chaos and confusion. But they were also met by hundreds of people moved to show solidarity instead of hate.

At New York City's JFK Airport, where Homeland Security officials detained 109 people, some 3,000 people clogged the area in front of the terminal for international arrivals.

Rita, who is Palestinian and a New York City public school teacher, told a story typical of so many:

A friend of a relative of mine is getting married. His bride is from Syria, and she's been detained inside. She had all her paperwork and came for the wedding, but they've stopped her. I think this is disgusting. People come to the U.S. for hope--for a life to start over--and it's a shame that it seems like it's all changing.

I love when I see people together. I'm Palestinian so I grew up with protests like this. I know the importance of it and the change it can make. Sometimes protest is the only way for people to be heard.

The Taxi Workers Alliance called a one-hour boycott of JFK airport pickups, explaining in a statement why they were joining the protest:

Our 19,000 member-strong union stands firmly opposed to Donald Trump's Muslim ban. As an organization whose membership is largely Muslim, a workforce that's almost universally immigrant, and a working-class movement that is rooted in the defense of the oppressed, we say no to this inhumane and unconstitutional ban...

We stand in solidarity with all of our peace-loving neighbors against this inhumane, cruel, and unconstitutional act of pure bigotry.

ESL teacher Jessica Garcia had canceled plans that night because she felt she had to join the protests at JFK. "I love my students," Garcia said. "They're terrified they're going to be taken away, and all I can keep telling them is that's not going to happen."

In New York and Seattle, police were apparently able to get rapid transit service to the airports shut down during the protests--for no other reason than that the cops said so.

JFK AIRPORT was featured by the national media, but the story was similar in many other cities.

In Chicago, thousands flooded into CTA trains to O'Hare International Airport and filled the International Terminal parking lot to capacity after the Arab American Action Network called an emergency protest late Saturday afternoon. The crowd filled the terminal itself, and a couple thousand people spilled outside, eventually blocking all traffic.

Mayra, an immigrant from Belize, holding signs that read "Respect and Dignity for All" and "No Muslim Ban," said she came to because she wanted "to support my fellow brothers and sisters who are Muslim and who are immigrants, because I'm an immigrant as well. We absolutely believe that being an immigrant is a combination of cultures and people, and is what makes America great."

At the San Francisco International Airport, more than 1,000 people came to a demonstration organized by a local coalition that included the Arab Resource and Organizing Center and Alliance of South Asians Taking Action, working together as Bay Resistance.

Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and Arab American Legal Services were present to support those who had been detained, as the crowd chanted, "Let the families out! Let the lawyers in!" Demonstrators held signs that read, "No Ban! No Wall!" and "Never Again"--drawing attention to the ugly fact the Trump decided to institute his refugee ban on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

There were some 1,000 people at Logan International Airport in Boston, filling the space in front of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Protesters circled around a people's mic as speakers drew connections between the U.S. war abroad, Islamophobia and xenophobia at home; and various other struggles such as the Indigenous fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

A young couple from Vermont passing through the airport decided to join in the protest, saying, "We're all activists now." Democratic Party politicians like Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren participated--a stark contrast to Warren's statements that she would work with the Trump administration on issues where they agree.

At Los Angeles International Airport, some 500 people turned out Saturday night and marched through the international terminal, in a protest called on Facebook by the Service Employees International Union.

At Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C., a multiracial crowd of hundreds, many of whom had never attended a protest before, chanted into the early morning hours, vowing to come back if they needed to. Some 300 people protested for three hours at the international terminal of the San Diego International Airport.

AFTER SEVERAL hours of protest that spread from airport to airport on Saturday night, there was good news--a federal judge in New York announced a stay for visa holders who were stranded in airport detention.

The stay was limited to those detained that night, and what will happen to future refugees is unclear. But the reason that a judge took action against a presidential executive order was clear: thousands of people chose solidarity instead of hate and put their ideas into action.

When the news spread, protesters still in the airports broke out in cheers. In Chicago, the chant was: "When we fight, we can win!"

More airport protests had been called for Sunday as this article was being written. In New York City, tens of thousands of people streamed downtown for another hastily organized protest of the Trump executive hate crimes.

The protest was similar to last weekend's outpouring for the women's marches--many of the people who came downtown had never protested before, but were committed now to show their opposition to Trump. Almost all the signs declaring solidarity with refugees and immigrants were homemade.

A Sunday rally in Copley Square in Boston likewise brought out thousands.

AND THESE weren't even the only protests of the week. A few days earlier, after Trump signed his hateful action about constructing the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, there was another surge of people turning out to show their opposition.

In New York City, some 4,000 people poured into Washington Square Park on January 26 in a protest called the night before by the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

There was a palpable feeling of urgency. Many in the crowd had never been to a protest before, but they felt compelled by the calamity of Trump's first week in office to fight back.

One Touro Medical College student named Faisal explained that he and his friends never had any time to organize, but that tonight, they "skipped class together, because we couldn't go about our normal lives while so many of our peers are under threat."

Maryam Shoubir, a student at Fordham University, explained how furious she felt that Iraqi and Yemeni immigrants, among others, would have even more difficulty entering the country than before. "Trump says send the refugees back to their country," she said. "But what country? The country that we've ruined and bombed? It's outrageous!"

Arab American Association of New York Director Linda Sarsour talked about the inspiring turnout at the historic Women's March on Washington on January 21, telling the crowd:

We have got to be really careful, because the opposition is ready. But what they don't know is that we're ready, too. While they are united around hate and divisiveness and racism and xenophobia, we are united by solidarity and love. Yes! Unity!

Walter Cooper, an activist with the Service Employees International Union 32BJ, told the crowd: "We are a union of women, of immigrants, and we are a union of Muslims. We will use our collective power in the days and months ahead to fight for a better future for all of our families, prevent deportations, and protect immigrants, Muslims and refugees."

Alongside these speakers, a sizeable group of Democratic politicians took the stage, including several City Council members, Comptroller Scott Stringer and member of Congress Nydia Velázquez.

That same evening, Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference to announce that he would take legal action against the federal government if any moves were made to cut federal funds from New York City because of its sanctuary status. "We will not deport law-abiding New Yorkers--we will not tear families apart," De Blasio said.

But many in the crowd at Washington Square Park understood that Muslims and immigrants already face persecution and racist violence under the liberal de Blasio administration--and that on-the-ground organizing in workplaces and communities will be absolutely necessary to protect all New Yorkers.

An increasing number of people are coming to realize that no one should trust the Democratic Party leadership to fight this fight for us. We'll need many more actions of the kind that shook Washington Square and airports in cities across the country to resist Trump--and hold all politicians accountable to the demands of justice.

Sofia Arias, Monique Dols, Danny Katch, Evelyn Kilgallen, Dylan Monahan, Stephanie Navarro, Sheri Pegram, Karla Tobar and Jeremy Tully contributed to this article.

Further Reading

From the archives