The story of one resident’s fight to enter the US after immigration ban
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Scores of refugees and US permanent residents are trapped in airports after Trump signed an executive order barring entry for many foreigners. France 24 spoke to a Houston-based lawyer fighting for her client’s right to enter the United States.
In the days leading up to the executive order, Mana Yegani, an immigration lawyer based in Texas, was desperately trying to figure out what was going on. She and other immigration lawyers across the country were frantically sharing information and going back and forth.
“Different versions of the executive order had been leaked, but they were all slightly different,” she told France 24. “We didn’t know what was going to happen and when it would happen. It was vague and that made it scary.”
But one thing was certain. Things didn’t look good. Like other lawyers, Yegani started contacting clients who were abroad and telling them to come home.
At about this time, Yegani got a message from a college friend. Iranian by birth, he is a permanent resident in Houston, Texas, where he works as an engineer for an oil and gas company. He was on a visit to Iran when he heard rumours about an imminent ban on travellers. He wanted Yegani’s advice.
“Get on the next flight,” she told him.
Race against the clock
The engineer, Yegani’s friend-turned-client, heeded her advice and boarded the first flight he could get out of Iran. At 4:42pm (Eastern Time), when the engineer was still in the air between Tehran and Frankfurt, Germany, Trump signed the executive order. It suspended entry for all refugees for the next 120 days and banned Syrian refugees indefinitely. Furthermore, citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran, would be blocked from entering the United States for the next 90 days. The Department of Homeland Security said that the order also prevented green card holders from these countries from returning to the United States.
After landing in Frankfurt, the engineer called his younger brother, a student at Texas A&M University. The brother, in turn, called Yegani.
“His little brother was so frightened,” she said. “He was saying to me, ‘If they detain my brother, I don’t know what to do.’”
In the general confusion after the ban was signed, there were reports that some green card holders of Iranian nationality were not being allowed to board US-bound flights in Frankfurt (as well as in Amsterdam and Tehran and several other cities). Yegani’s client got lucky and was able to board his flight to Houston.
The plane landed on the tarmac of Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport on Saturday around 2pm. As soon as he disembarked, Yegani’s client called her.
He was panicking.
“What’s going to happen to me?” the engineer asked as he headed towards customs.
Yegani decided she had to be honest.
“We’ve heard about some bad situations,” she said. “Be strong. But don’t surrender your green card.”
She also tried to calm him down.
“Even if they try to wind you up, be respectful,” she coached him. “Keep calm, but stand your ground.”
They were only able to speak for about a minute and a half before Yegani’s client arrived at the no-mobile-phone zone by customs. He hung up, took a deep breath and stepped into the unknown.
Interrogation: “The Twilight Zone”
Yegani says her client has no criminal record. He is a permanent legal resident of the United States and a taxpayer. He’s employed in the United States by an American company.
Yet when he entered customs, the engineer was immediately taken into secondary inspection, a space reserved for travellers who officials suspect are smuggling contraband or violating federal law. He saw about 40 other people there, also awaiting questioning. More were being brought in.
When his turn came, the engineer was questioned for about two and a half hours. Custom agents looked through his phone. They studied his Facebook account and analysed his posts. They checked his contact list.
He was interrogated about where he had stayed in Iran, how much money he had, and if he was affiliated with any Islamic groups.
“You can screen passports, but if a person hasn’t committed a crime, you can’t hold them,” Yegani said. “Subjecting them to personal questions creates a Nazi-style situation. Customs isn’t supposed to be the Twilight Zone.”
Her client was also asked if he supported President Trump.
Meanwhile Yegani had arrived at the airport and she was making her presence known. She called the airport customs officer and explained her client’s situation. The person on the other end of the line hung up on her.
But Yegani is sure that it had an impact.
“Due to national security, immigration lawyers can’t talk to our clients while they are going through interrogation,” she said. “But it does make an impact that this person has a lawyer and the lawyer is present. It’s like they are being watched over.”
At airports across the United States, other immigration lawyers, working pro bono, were also fighting for clients trapped in the system. Dozens of lawyers came to Washington Dulles International Airport alone.
The media was also starting to report on the green card and visa holders being detained in these airports. In New York’s John F. Kennedy’s Airport, hundreds of people showed up to show support two Iraqis who were detained there.
Starting at around 7pm, a group of about 100 people also gathered in Terminal E of Houston’s Bush Airport. Some were waiting for family members. Others held signs saying “No ban, no wall”, “We love refugees” and “We are ALL immigrants”.
“Refugees are welcome here!” they chanted.
Yegani, who was still waiting for her client, was heartened by the support.
“It was a really nice picture of unity,” she said. “People brought their kids to show them what was going on.”
Finally, hours after his arrival at Houston, Yegani’s client exited the customs area. His girlfriend and his younger brother were waiting for him.
“I went through hell,” the engineer later told Yegani.
But, for Yegani, the most important thing was that he was through.
“I felt like I had won the lottery,” she told FRANCE 24. “It was like proof that the law does prevail.”
GREAT news, after 2.5 hrs, my client made it out of customs. A green card holder with Iranian passport. Admitted! We beat the villain. pic.twitter.com/PF9wGqM9eX— Mana Yegani (@Law_Mana) January 28, 2017
It did for the engineer. However, in a press briefing, White House officials said that entry for green card holders from these seven countries on the list would be determined on a case-by-case basis.
“We’re trying to get as many in as possible”
On Sunday, Yegani’s client was at home, sleeping off the exhaustion and terror of his journey.
Yegani, who said she hadn’t slept for 48 hours when she talked to FRANCE 24, was camped on her couch. She moved downstairs so her husband could get some sleep. Her phone hasn’t stopped ringing with calls coming in from all over the world. Some people were calling to report other immigrants detained in US airports. Others want to help. Many are desperately seeking advice.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Yegani said. “A husband called me and said, ‘My wife is in Iran, we have a 2-year-old son and I have to go back to work. What do I do if she can’t come back?’”
On Saturday, a federal judge in New York issued an injunction, blocking the government from deporting recent arrivals affected by the ban. Yegani and her group of immigration lawyers have been telling everyone who has a valid visa or green card to get on the next plane back to the United States.
“We don’t know how long this temporary freeze will stay in effect,” she said. “We’re trying to get as many people in as possible.”
One small victory down, Yegani still has a lot of work to do. But for her, the struggle is personnel. Her parents fled to the United States after Ayatollah Khomenei took power in Iran.
“Growing up, there was always talk about immigration and asylum,” she said. “Once I went into law, I felt like focusing on immigration was a way to help people. Immigrants really contribute to society and bring a lot of value.”
But, now more than ever, she’s ready to defend that her belief. On her website, Yegani claims to be an “aggressive” immigration lawyer.
When asked, she laughs.
“Well, you know,” she said. “When the going gets tough…”
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