Andrew Kelly/Reuters

President Trump’s ban on immigration from several Muslim countries triggers mass demonstrations at airports nationwide.

On Friday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order suspending the arrival of refugees into the U.S. and barring the entry of citizens from a handful of Muslim-majority countries, including U.S. green card holders.

Following the announcement, refugees who had been poised to start new lives in America saw their futures cast into doubt. International students and former translators for the U.S. Army were not allowed to get on their flights to the U.S. Green-card holders visiting family were stuck in limbo, wondering how or whether they would be able to come home. Travelers from these countries who had already reached U.S. airports were detained. Immigration lawyers and other volunteers furtively filed writs of habeas corpus, arguing for the release of their clients. And, in airports nationwide, impromptu mass demonstrations against the ban erupted.

At Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C., for example, hundreds of protesters packed the international arrivals hall late Saturday night. Passengers disembarking from flights who were citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, and Sudan were detained by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Dozens of lawyers who had assembled near the protesters were not permitted to see the detainees, despite an order issued by a federal judge earlier in the evening instructing authorities to give legal permanent residents of the U.S. access to lawyers and forbidding their removal for seven days. (Overall, lawyers estimated that 50 individuals were detained, and said they believed most were legal permanent residents.)

Among the lawyers: Hassan Ahmad, a Virginia attorney who was trying to see one of his clients, a 71-year-old Iranian man who he said has a heart condition. “We were concerned that he would be denied entry and sent back, and it was very dangerous for him to take an entire flight back to Iran,” Ahmad told CityLab. “I’m hoping for the chance to be able to go in and talk to him.”

Also in the crowd was Mariam Alrubaiy, a young Iraqi student at Strayer University in D.C. who lives in Arlington, Virginia. She had been planning on visiting her family in Iraq this spring; now, she said, she was “stuck here.” Alrubaiy had come to Dulles to join protesters, and speak up for her fellow citizens: “We are on the front line, fighting ISIS, on behalf of the whole world ... I’m not a threat to you guys.”  

Mariam Alrubaiy demonstrates at Dulles Airport on Saturday night. (Amanda Kolson-Hurley/CityLab)

Between chants of “This is what America looks like” and “Let them see their lawyers,” protesters cheered as passengers slowly trickled out. Among those who eventually came out after being detained were Ahmad’s elderly client (according to Maryland immigration attorney Mark Shmueli, a colleague of Ahmad’s), two other elderly people in wheelchairs, and a five-year-old boy.

Around midnight, Cory Booker, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, arrived and ducked into the CBP area as officials continued to keep lawyers from the detainees. After Booker emerged, he addressed the crowd, saying CBP had violated the court order and that the last of the detainees would be released “momentarily.” (According to a report from The Daily Beast, however, at least one person on a non-immigrant visa was still being held as of the early hours of Sunday morning, and two permanent residents were made to sign forms relinquishing their green cards.)

In airports nationwide, a weekend of outrage

Scenes such as this could be found around the country, as crowds swelled at airports in big cities like Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, Seattle, Dallas, and San Francisco. But cities like Boise, Albuquerque, and Kansas City saw crowds opposing the ban, too.  

Among the most visible demonstrations was in New York City. Outside of John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, a handful of people turned into hundreds on Saturday. By the evening, New York Taxi Drivers Alliance had declared an hour-long moratorium on passenger pick-ups, and the JFK AirTrain had been halted.

So far, four federal courts have blocked the deportation of these airport detainees. On Sunday morning, the Trump administration walked back the ban slightly, saying that green card holders would be allowed in. On Monday, some protesters remain at major airports, and more are expected. Lawyers and lawmakers continue to seek access to detainees.

For activists, a powerful symbol

Barely a week into the Donald Trump administration, such scenes of mass protest appear to be the order of the day. On Sunday afternoon, another march was proceeding across Washington, D.C., from the White House to the Capitol, as CityLab staffer George Joseph reported:

But airports have emerged the most popular venues for demonstrations against the Muslim ban. This makes sense: Transportation infrastructure has always served as a stage for protest, as far back as the 19th century and early in the 20th century. Demonstrations from the Civil Rights movement, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter all have held urban highways ransom for their causes. And it’s been effective, as Emily Badger wrote in The Washington Post:

Block a highway, and you upend the economic life of a city, as well as the spatial logic that has long allowed people to pass through them without encountering their poverty or problems. Block a highway, and you command a lot more attention than would a rally outside a church or city hall — from traffic helicopters, immobile commuters, alarmed officials.

This weekend, activists are finding the same logic applies to airports: As gateways of international traffic, these sites serve as powerful symbols of the global relationships threatened by the president’s actions. These are also the modern-day Ellis Islands, where immigrants and refugees take their first steps on American soil.

Disrupting airport operations isn’t new: In the past, Heathrow International Airport—one of the busiest in the world—has been brought to its knees by a handful of racial justice activists, and it has also been targeted by climate change protesters. American airports, too, have seen recent demonstrations over workers’ rights. But nothing in recent memory compares to the strength and scope of the protests this weekend.

UPDATE: This post has been updated with new information.

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