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'It Would Be an Alternative Fact to Say That It's Not a Muslim Ban'

A 16-year-old Jordanian visa-holder was detained in Houston and transferred to a detention facility in Chicago, prompting confusion about how far the travel ban goes.

Demonstrators greet a Palestinian man who was detained for hours at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport on January 28. (Trish Badger/Reuters)

Even amid the chaos seen across the nation’s airports since President Donald Trump’s executive order on Muslim immigration, Mohammad Abu Khadra’s story stands out.

Mohammad, a 16-year-old who lives in Katy, Texas, just west of Houston, was detained when he flew into Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport from abroad on Saturday, the Houston Chronicle reports. Mohammad was traveling on a visa; he had returned to Jordan to renew his passport. Upon arriving in the States, he got caught in the dragnet that has snared some visa-holding residents from seven Muslim-majority nations since Friday night.

Except Jordan isn’t one of the seven nations named on the consequential executive order. In fact, on Monday, King Abdullah II of Jordan became the first Arab leader to hold talks with President Trump. Meanwhile, authorities still haven’t released Mohammad, who attends classes at Katy High School. On Monday evening, after more than 48 hours in detention at the airport in Houston, Mohammad was transferred to Chicago, where he is being detained at a shelter under the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

[UPDATE 2/1: The local NBC affiliate reports that Mohammad was traveling on a tourist visa when he was detained.]

Ali Zakaria, an immigration lawyer who showed up at the airport in Houston on Friday to assist travelers affected by the executive order, says that it’s common for adolescent refugees to be transferred to separate detention facilities that are set up for children. But Mohammad’s case is exceptional. He is not a refugee, for starters. Also, Houston has a refugee resettlement camp able to accommodate children.

“We’re not sure why this kid was not sent to the facility in Houston,” Zakaria says. “We’re also not sure why this kid was held at the airport for 48 hours.”

Zakaria says that he hopes to see Mohammad released within the next two weeks. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will file the notice to appear in immigration court and “take whatever action they deem in this matter based on whatever the problem is with the kid’s visa,” Zakaria says. He has yet to see that charge sheet.

“Our first priority at this stage is to get him released, and get him united with his family,” Zakaria says. Mohammad has an older brother, Rami, a green-card holder living in Katy, per the Chronicle; the American Civil Liberties Union, which is working with immigrants and visa holders from countries named under the executive order, connected the brother with the attorney.

A 16-year-old’s detention at a federal facility in Chicago might be a matter of improper paperwork or mistaken identity under other circumstances. But Mohammad’s case exposes significant challenges associated with the executive order, Zakaria says. Whether or not by design, confusion is a feature of the travel ban.

No one in Houston knew it was happening, for starters. “It’s not the practice of [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] to inform the city,” says Kris Banks, a special assistant to the mayor’s office in Houston. “We for instance didn’t know how many people had been detained over the course of the weekend.”

Local officials would not have jurisdiction in a federal immigration case, of course. But no one in the mayor’s office in Chicago knew, either, that a Houston resident was being detained there, a spokesperson said on the phone. And Mohammad has no access to a cell phone.  

Zakaria says that he is unaware of any other Jordanian visa holders being detained. But he notes that airlines are already refusing passengers from citizens of the seven countries named in the executive order, even though, for visa holders, their legal status is subject to case-by-case interpretation, for now. Chaos in the rollout, Zakaria says, is strengthening the order as a ban.

It would be an alternative fact to say that it’s not a Muslim ban,” Zakaria says. “My personal observation, by being at the airport for Sunday and Monday, and from talking to clients and a lot of other attorneys, is that Muslims who are not even citizens of these seven countries are being pulled from the line and are being put in secondary inspection areas and are having to wait three to nine hours.”

Zakaria adds, “Of course I think this case has everything to do with the executive order issued by Trump.”

UPDATE: This post has been updated with new information.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.