NEW YORK CITY — President Donald Trump's ban on travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries led to the detention of several people flying into John F. Kennedy Airport on Saturday, officials said.
Hundreds of people gathered at the airport throughout the day to protest Trump's order and to demand that those detained be released.
Trump's executive order signed on Friday blocked entry for all refugees from Syria indefinitely, and refugees from other countries for 120 days, but also temporarily halted entry to New Yorkers and others with legal permanent resident status who come from one of the seven countries. Those countries are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
The family of a 66-year-old Yemeni matriarch, Amena, a green card holder who was flying in Saturday from Saudi Arabia to live with her son Ahmed and his wife, waited anxiously in the airport's Terminal 1 to see if she would be allowed to stay or be sent back. They declined to give their last names for fear of reprisals.
"I feel scared, we all feel insecure," said Mohamed, 26, Amena's nephew who is now a citizen. "I hate to see people divided. I would never, never expect to see an old woman treated like this in New York."
Ali, a 78-year-old Iranian man and green card holder who has lived with his daughter Atousa in Connecticut for the last 15 years, was detained for more than 7 hours before being released.
"We came here from Iran for freedom and democracy," said Atousa, who declined to give her last name. "We wanted to live here, in the states, and this is what happens. I can't understand. I can't understand."
Her brother, who also has a green card, was still detained Saturday night.
Ali, translated through his daughter, had a message for Donald Trump: "Don't create problems, solve them."
Among the other travelers held were two Iraqi men who said they feared terrorist retribution for helping American military efforts in Baghdad, according to a writ filed in Brooklyn Federal Court seeking their release.
Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi, 34, and Hameed Khalid Darweesh, 53, arrived at the airport Friday night with the goal of settling in the U.S. with their families under special visas designed to protect Iraqis who faced threats for helping the military effort in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Darweesh was released Saturday afternoon and Alshawi was released later that night. Federal officials said that 11 other refugees were still being detained at JFK by Department of Homeland Security's division of Customs and Border Protection. They did not immediately respond to confirm that number.
Darweesh, a trained electrical engineer and father of three, worked extensively with the United States government and military in Iraq for 10 years as an interpreter, engineer and contractor, according to a Writ of Habeas Corpus filed in Brooklyn Federal Court. He was heading to North Carolina with his family, who were not detained.
"He was released because it's totally arbitrary," said Becca Heller, a lawyer with the International Refugee Assistant Project. "He got very, very lucky."
Alshawi worked as an accountant with a military contractor, the Falcon Security Group, in Baghdad and had lost a family member to insurgent attacks. He was coming to join his wife and son, who live in Texas.
"I've been speaking with his wife and she's very emotional," said his lawyer, Julie Kornfield. "She's been up all night."
Lawyers for the two men said they were prevented from speaking to their clients while in detention.
When they asked who they should talk to, they were told "Mr. President. Call Mr. Trump," according to the account in court papers.
Alshawi, who was released about 7 p.m., said he was relieved to be out. He feared returning to Baghdad where he faced constant threats and was forced to regularly check his car for bombs.
He looked forward to reuniting with his wife and son, who he hadn't seen since 2014.
"When I see my son I'm going to hug him for a very long time," he said.
On Saturday afternoon, U.S. Representatives Nydia Valazquez and Jerry Nadler claimed credit for the release of Darweesh after meeting with officials at Customs and Board Protection. The representatives said they were also working to free 11 other refugees being detained at the airport.
"Today, we saw in real human terms the damage and the absurdity of Trump’s policies," Nadler and Velazquez said in a joint statement. "The president’s executive order is mean-spirited, ill-conceived, and ill-advised. The order almost banned a man from entering the country who has worked for the United States government for 10 years, who risked his life to help us and to help our troops, and who loves our country."
Both elected officials condemned the executive order and the refugee detention as anti-American.
"This should not happen in America," they continued. "We shouldn’t have to demand the release of refugees one by one. We must fight this executive order in the streets, in the courts, anywhere, anytime. We must resist. We must fight. We must keep working to keep America the land of the free and the home of the brave."
Ongoing protest outside of Terminal 4 at JFK Airport may lead to increased traffic. Please leave extra time to arrive for flights and contac— John F. Kennedy (@JFKairport) January 28, 2017
Outside the arrival terminal Saturday afternoon, hundreds of demonstrators held up signs and chanted, "Let them in" over the president's immigration policy.
The Port Authority had halted AirTrain service to JFK, which limited protesters' ability to get to the airport, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo told the agency to resume service.
"I have ordered the Port Authority to reverse its decision regarding the JFK AirTrain," Cuomo said in a statement. "I have also directed the MTA and the New York State Police to assist with transportation and security needs to ensure the safety of all those participating. The people of New York will have their voices heard."