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It's Unclear How Many People Are Detained at JFK Under Trump's Refugee Ban

By  Michael P. Ventura Katie Honan Noah  Hurowitz and Irene Plagianos | January 29, 2017 2:03pm | Updated on January 29, 2017 5:44pm

 Zarepishah Zabihollah was detained after flying in to John F. Kennedy Airport from Iran.
Zarepishah Zabihollah was detained after flying in to John F. Kennedy Airport from Iran.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

JOHN F. KENNEDY AIRPORT — A fluctuating number of people were still being held at John F. Kennedy Airport on Sunday afternoon as part of President Donald Trump's executive order to block refugees and immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries to enter the United States.

Differing accounts of how many people were being detained were given throughout the day Sunday.

U.S. Rep Hakeem Jeffries told reporters gathered at the airport's Terminal 4 that six people were still detained there. He later told reporters it was 10.

A Stonybrook University student from Iran who was released Sunday said she was detained with roughly 20 people, but that the number changed as some immigrants, refugees and family members of people living within the United States were freed and others arriving on incoming flights took their place.

That student, Vahideh Rasekhi, is earning a a Ph.D at Stonybrook University on Long Island. She was released Sunday afternoon after she was detained for more than 24 hours.

Vahideh Rasekhi at John F. Kennedy Airport. (DNAinfo/Katie Honan)

She hugged friends who were waiting for her at the airport after her release and said while she was detained officials asked her about her visa, where she came from and where she goes to school.

"I was super scared, that I'm going to go back and be deported," she said.

She added that she understood government officials were just doing their jobs, and that she and the roughly 20 other detainees she saw were treated well.

"They gave us food," she said. "Anytime we wanted water — even someone wanted lemon, just lemon water — they went and grabbed it."

Melanie Zuch, a lawyer for the Urban Justice Center who has been working to secure the release of the detainees, said she and other attorneys at the airport expect more people to be detained as they arrive at JFK.

A group of lawyers organized by the Urban Justice Center's International Refugee Assistance Project who have been volunteering at the airport said in a statement Sunday they had filed 18 writs of habeas corpus to ask the courts to release individual detainees, and that 11 had been freed so far.

"The situation on the ground is fluid and we are adjusting strategy and approach to best address an evolving situation," the statement read.

A woman hugs her mother at JFK Airport on Sunday. The daughter is also a student at Stonybrook, and hadn't seen her mother, who was detained at the airport since 11:30 a.m., Saturday, in more than three years. (DNAinfo/Katie Honan)

Trump on Friday signed an executive order blocking entry for all refugees from Syria indefinitely, and refugees from other countries for 120 days, and temporarily halted entry to New Yorkers and others with legal permanent resident status who come from one of the seven countries. 

A Brooklyn federal judge on Saturday night issued a nationwide stay on Trump's order that prevented the government from deporting refugees and immigrants entering the United States legally and with the proper paperwork.

One of those people released Saturday was Haider Sameer Abdukhaleq Alshawi, an Iraqi refugee whose wife worked as an accountant for the United States during the war there. His wife and son are already living here, and he was en route to join them when he was detained.

"When I see my son I'm going to hug him for a very long time," he said.

Trump's executive order touched off a wave of protests across the country, as well as at JFK airport, on Saturday.

More protests were planned Sunday, both at the airport and at the Battery Park City offices of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

"We are here because this executive order is totally unfair," said Sony Dastgir, 56, from Long Island, who came to the airport Sunday to protest. He held up a sign that read: "Proud to be American Muslim"

Over at Battery Park City, Amena Afife, 41 who's a U.S. Citizen from Egypt, came to the protest from Jersey City with her two children, and carrying an American flag.

"I'm really sad for everyone," she said. "Why hate Muslims? Why, I ask you? Why? The Muslims [are] good neighbors."

The Trump administration seemed to put forth contradictory views on the travel ban on Sunday.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the executive order does not apply to green card holders, but the president reiterated on Twitter the need for "extreme vetting" of people coming from the seven countries.