Dulles Dispatch: Protesters Greet Travelers With Smiles As U.S. Travel Ban Confusion Persists

DULLES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, Virginia — Travelers filing out of the airport international exit on January 30 were greeted with smiles, signs, and songs on the third day of protests against President Donald Trump’s temporary ban on foreign travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Dozens of demonstrators lined the corridor leading out of the international arrivals hall held up placards reading “We are all immigrants,” “Welcome home,” and “Won’t you be my neighbor?” throughout the day, occasionally breaking into songs like America The Beautiful and This Land Is Your Land.

It was a pleasant sight for travelers arriving from all over the world, many of whom grinned and thanked the volunteer welcoming committee. One airline crew member passing the crowd thrust his thumb skyward in a sign of approval.

Despite the show of support at the U.S. capital’s main gateway for international travelers, rights activists and volunteer attorneys who have set up shop in the hall expressed frustration. They say they have been unable to obtain information about individuals who may have been detained by Customs and Border Protection officers acting on the Executive Order signed by Trump on January 27.

That order has sparked chaos not just at Dulles, but at airports around the United States, and the world, as travelers got mixed messages who was affected, and border agents enforced the rules haphazardly. Adding to the chaos were a series of federal court rulings that suspended some of the executive order.

The protests also sparked massive protests in U.S. cities and at a growing number of airports, as well. 

“Right now our efforts are somewhat thwarted by the fact that Customs and Border Protection here at Washington Dulles has not been communicative about how many people are in deferred inspection, whether they’re refugees, or green-card holders, or special-immigrant visa holders,” Nithya Nathan-Pineau of Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition told RFE/RL.

Her group was manning one of two tables stocked with doughnuts, coffee, and granola bars set up by a small army activists and volunteer attorneys working to identify relatives of travelers who may have been detained under the temporary ban on arrivals from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.

The Trump administration has defended the measure as critical to the nation’s security and has said it is not a “Muslim ban.”

Many of the protesters at Dulles on January 30 held anti-Trump placards, though the president had at least one voter among the crowd. Danny, a 33-year-old from Virginia who declined to give his last name, said he voted for Trump because he despised his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

He told RFE/RL that he came out to protest because “America is built on civil liberties and the protection of our civil liberties, and any erosion of our civil liberties should be an issue for all members of a free, sentient, and educated society.”

“We don’t classify people based on religion in this country, nor will we stand by and abide by it,” Danny said.

Volunteers, both young and old, remained throughout the afternoon asking coordinators how they could pitch in.

Kamyar Arsani, a 24-year-old teacher originally from Tehran, told RFE/RL that he had arrived for the third straight day to offer his assistance as a Persian translator.

He said that so far he has interacted with two Iranian families, residents of Washington, who had difficulties crossing the border with their green cards, officially known as lawful permanent residency permits.

“They were held for 24 hours, and their questioning was pretty much ridiculous questioning that had nothing to do with terrorist interactions or anything,” Arsani said. “And after that they just released them.” 

The White House has defended the order as a necessary way to protect American citizens. Spokesman Sean Spicer insisted to reporters January 30 that its impact had been “blown way out of proportion and exaggerated.”

Senator Tim Kaine (Democrat-Virginia), who was Clinton’s vice presidential nominee in the 2016 election, denounced the measure as a religion-based ban, “pure and simple.”

He said border officials told him that no one had been detained at Dulles since January 29.

Kaine also said border officials explained to him how the policy applies to green-card holders from the countries listed in Trump’s executive order. They will be allowed to board flights abroad, then will be questioned upon entry into United States, with the expectation that they will then be allowed in, he said.

Meanwhile, a growing number of Republican lawmakers have spoken out about the order, though many have focused on its confused rollout rather than its legality or the specific groups it has targeted. 

Senators John McCain (Republican-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina) released a statement January 29 that said the order could be a propaganda victory for Islamic extremists. 

Senators Marco Rubio (Republican-Florida) and Tim Scott (Republican-South Carolina) said in a joint statement that “the manner in which these measures were crafted and implemented have greatly contributed to the confusion, anxiety and uncertainty of the last few days.”

Senator Pat Toomey (Republican-Pennsylvania) said he supported increased vetting for immigrants, but he said “unfortunately, the initial executive order was flawed — it was too broad and poorly explained.”

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