This was the weekend Americans met “the enemy.” Turns out it was not who many had expected.
As the new ban on people entering from certain Muslim countries took effect at airports across the country, details replaced generalized accusations. Now refugees, guest workers and green card holders acquired faces and names. Now they were doctors, industrial engineers, young adults orphaned by Taliban bombs, elderly parents of American citizens, widowed mothers of American soldiers, interpreters who had risked their lives for American troops.
Americans are very good at worrying about the wrong things. We fear the slim chance our children will be abducted should they play on the front lawn, but we don’t weigh it against the health risks of staying indoors watching TV instead. The risk of being killed by a foreign terrorist within the United States is one in 3.6 million, while the risk of dying because of a car accident is about one in 6,700, yet it is the terrorist that keeps more people up at night.
At the same time, Americans are fiercely moved by a face and a name. It was Joseph Stalin who reportedly said, “The death of one person is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic,” an observation codified by psychologist Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon. If we read about millions being displaced in Syria, we tend to turn the page. But, if we see a photo of one little boy’s body on a beach or bloodied face staring back from an ambulance, we are moved.
This weekend, statistics and stories flowed through social media. The large number of potential immigrants in the pipeline — tens of thousands — collided with the very singular tales of those whose dreams were caught up in politics. The perceived risks (“Some people have come in with evil intentions,” President Trump said on Thursday in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. “Most haven’t, I guess, but we can’t take chances.”) were presented against hard data (Not a single terrorist death has been caused by a refugee from any of the seven countries on the new no-immigration list.).
The question is which human instinct would prevail? Would stories or statistics, fears or data, matter most in the end?
Below are the tales of some of the would-be immigrants and visitors waiting to learn the answer:
Samantha Lloyd is an immigration lawyer in Chicago. She said that after the draft of Trump’s executive order on immigration was first leaked to the press last week, the American Immigration Lawyers Association began circulating an email call for lawyers to volunteer to show up at their nearest airport within an hour after Trump signed the order. Lloyd signed up and was one of the first attorneys to arrive at O’Hare International Airport on Saturday afternoon, offering to help people waiting for relatives who had been detained.
Lloyd told Yahoo News about two cases she handled on Saturday for people who, because of fear and confusion about the executive order, asked that their names not be published.
One man was a U.S. green card holder who was actually born in the U.K. and has dual citizenship with Iran. Lloyd learned from his brother-in-law, who was awaiting his arrival in the terminal, that the man was being detained with his wife, a U.S. citizen, and their child.
Lloyd said she worked with the man’s brother-in-law to figure out that he lives in Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s district, in the northern suburbs. Unable to extract any information from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents, Lloyd said that she and her colleagues began tweeting Schakowsky, and within a couple of hours, the detained family was released.
The other man who approached Lloyd at O’Hare was also an Iranian immigrant with an employment-based visa petition known as a National Interest Waiver, or NIW. Lloyd said only that the man was working on a PhD in the United States. But, she noted that an NIW is a “very, very difficult immigration petition to get approved,” so “the fact that he was able to get a green card with that is really, truly extraordinary.”
“You have to be of such great value to the United States that the U.S. considers it a national interest for you to be here,” she explained.
The man was at the airport waiting for his wife, also from Iran, and their 18-month-old daughter, who is a U.S. citizen. The two had gone, with approved travel authorization, to visit his wife’s parents in Iran and had been detained upon their return to Chicago.
Throughout the day, Lloyd said, she received mixed messages from clearly confused Customs and Border Patrol officers who initially told her that the man’s wife and daughter would be released but later said they’d received orders to the contrary. The two were eventually released at around 10 p.m. on Saturday.
Suha Abushamma was an H-1B visa holder in her first year of an internal medicine residency at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. The 26-year-old Sudanese citizen was visiting family in Saudi Arabia when she heard about Trump’s proposal for an executive order that would include a 90-day travel ban for citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, including Sudan.
Concerned that she might not be able to get back into the country, Abushamma decided to cut her vacation short and quickly renewed her work visa at the U.S. Embassy before getting on a flight back to New York on Saturday — one day after Trump signed the executive order.
Because of her Sudanese passport, Abushamma was detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport and eventually given the option to withdraw her visa and leave the country willingly, or refuse to withdraw and be deported, which would result in being banned from the U.S. for at least five years. Though she’d managed to make contact with lawyers who were trying to work quickly on her case, officers refused Abushamma’s request to delay making any decisions for a few more hours and by 8:30 Saturday evening, she’d been put on a plane back to Saudi Arabia. Minutes after her flight took off, a federal judge in New York ordered a stay on deporting people who’d been detained in airports under the executive order.
“I’m only in this country to be a doctor, to work and to help people — that’s it,” Abushamma told ProPublica via FaceTime while in flight back to Saudi Arabia. “There’s no other reason.”
Hameed Khalid Darweesh
Hameed Khalid Darweesh was one of two Iraqi men detained at Kennedy Airport who became the subjects of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) seeking to stay Trump’s order.
A husband and father of three, Darweesh had been granted a Special Immigrant Visa because he faced threats to his life over his work with the U.S. military in Iraq from 2003 to 2010.
Brandon Friedman, a U.S. veteran and former Obama administration official who worked with Darweesh in Iraq, tweeted about his former interpreter’s travel plans.
One of my Iraqi interpreters is immigrating *tomorrow* on an SQ1 Special Immigrant Visa. He's arriving in NYC. Not sure they'll let him in.
— Brandon Friedman (@BFriedmanDC) January 26, 2017
Guy literally spent years keeping U.S. soldiers alive in combat in Iraq. He was one of the first to sign up in 2003. He is fearless.
— Brandon Friedman (@BFriedmanDC) January 26, 2017
In an interview with NPR, Friedman said Darweesh was “committed to the mission. He’s committed to protecting the U.S. troops who are over there, and he’s absolutely fearless.”
“We would go out and all the American soldiers would be wearing body armor. He would go out with… when we first started, he would go out wearing absolutely nothing but his clothes, and he would do the same missions,” he continued. “He didn’t have an ounce of fear in him, and it was really unfortunate that they decided to detain him. This executive order is quite un-American because he’s exactly the type of — exactly the type of person we need to be letting in. We really owe it to him.”
Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi
The second Iraqi man named in the ACLU lawsuit was Alshawi, a 33-year-old accountant who was on his way to join his wife and 7-year-old son, both lawful permanent residents, at their home in Houston when he was detained at Kennedy Airport.
According to the New York Times, Alshawi’s wife was also an accountant who had worked for a security contractor with the U.S. military in Iraq and, as a result, was subjected to threats to her family — including a car bombing that killed her sister’s husband in Baghdad in 2010. Alshawi’s wife and son came to the U.S. as refugees in 2014 and, three years later, he’d finally been granted a visa to join them.
After almost an entire day in detention, Alshawi was released Saturday night following the judicial stay, and by Sunday morning had resumed his journey to Houston.
Nazanin Zinouri is an Iranian-born data scientist and South Carolina resident who was blocked from boarding her flight from Dubai to Washington, D.C., after Trump signed the executive order Friday night.
Zinouri first arrived in the United States in 2010, to began a master’s program in engineering at Northern Illinois University, where she received a full scholarship. Since 2013, she has lived in South Carolina, where after earning her doctorate in industrial engineering at Clemson University, she was hired at a technology firm that soon began the process of sponsoring her for a green card.
“In the winter, I decided to take a three-week trip to visit my mom and sister,” Zinouri wrote in the Washington Post on Monday. “My visa was in order, but I hauled along a ton of paperwork to avoid trouble — I had my job offer letter, my employment authorization form, multiple pay stubs, even copies of my old student visas, just in case.”
Shortly after arriving in Tehran last weekend, however, she was starting to hear rumors about Trump’s executive orders. Three days into what was supposed to be a three-week trip, it became clear to Zinouri that she had to get back to the U.S. But by the time she boarded the earliest flight she could get out of Tehran, the order had been signed. And before she reached the second leg of her trip, from Dubai to Dulles, U.S. officials stopped her from boarding for “security reasons.”
Zinouri describes feeling “numb,” as “a million thoughts rushed through my mind, from the practical to the philosophical,” like what would happen to the puppy she’d recently adopted, or her car she’d left parked at the Atlanta airport?
“What happens to all the stuff I had collected during 6½ years living in the United States? What about my lease? Will my landlord think I just left town? What happens to my job, my life, my American Dream?” she wrote. “I flew back to Tehran to stay with my family and figure out what to do next, stung by the realization that as far as the U.S. government is concerned, my life doesn’t matter. Nothing I worked for all these years matters.”
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