The New York Civil Liberties Union announced today that it had secured the return of two Iranian students to the U.S. on Sunday after they had been denied entry a week earlier due to President Trump’s executive order targeting Muslims and refugees. Both students had been detained at JFK Airport upon arrival the day following the executive order and sent back to their points of origin. Attorneys from the NYCLU worked with government officials and airline personnel to secure the students’ return to the United States.
The two students had been detained upon their earlier arrival and forced to leave the country just hours before a federal judge in New York suspended parts of the executive order in response to a lawsuit challenging the ban filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocates. Subsequently, this Friday, a federal judge in Seattle temporarily blocked the order from being enforced nationwide, allowing visa holders from seven predominantly Muslim countries to again enter the U.S.
“Immigrants have made enormous contributions to this country, but Trump’s unlawful ‘Muslim ban’ flouts the visa rules that have been in place and sends a message of hate and bias that goes against everything this country stands for,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. “The NYCLU will continue to fight against this unlawful and deeply harmful ban. We will defend the rights and values that are the cornerstone of our democracy, and that have built a free, fair and strong New York. We are delighted that the two students are now able to return to their studies.”
“Our clients came to this country to learn, grow and contribute, but the Trump Administration has made them targets and attempted to strip them of their rights and dignity because of their faith,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose, who supervised the effort to assist the students. “We are relieved that with their successful return, they can now carry on with their lives in New York. However, the future for others in their position remains uncertain.”
One of the students, Amir, is a 29-year-old Iranian citizen, who is completing his PhD studies at a university in Sweden. As part of his program, Amir was invited to collaborate with scholars at Cornell University in Ithaca. But when he got off his plane at JFK Airport on Friday, January 27, he was detained and later handcuffed by Customs and Border Protection agents. The agents seized his belongings, including his travel documents and cited the executive order, but otherwise refused to provide details about why he was not being allowed to enter the country. After hours in detention through the night, Amir was told he could either withdraw his application for admission to the U.S. or he would be forcibly removed and barred from entering the U.S. for at least five years. He was not offered access to an attorney and was placed on a plane back to Sweden. NYCLU Staff Attorney Jordan Wells worked directly with Amir to secure his return.
“America is a great country with great universities and great people, so I was shocked to learn I couldn’t enter the country,” Amir said. “I just kept asking myself why? Why is this happening; just because of my birthplace? Now I am excited to finally be here and to study at Cornell.”
The other student is a 27-year-old Iranian citizen named Saba, who is getting her master’s degree at a university in New York. She left the country over winter break to visit family in Tehran and to travel. But when she tried to re-enter the U.S. from Geneva, she was detained for several hours. Eventually a Customs and Border Protection officer told her she would not be allowed to enter the U.S. Saba started to cry and told the officer she had an apartment in New York with all of her belongings still inside, but he said he had to send her back. Saba was subjected to an invasive full-body search, told to sign a document without being able to review it, and then put on a plane back to Geneva. She was not offered access to legal counsel. NYCLU Legal Fellow Aadhithi Padmanabhan worked directly with Saba to ensure her reentry.
“When I was banned from living the life I have always been dreaming of, it felt awful,” said Saba. “This was never something I thought would happen to me here, that I would be told I was dangerous and that I couldn’t come in. I want people to know what happened to me and I want my story to help others.”
Lorenz Wolffers an immigration attorney in private practice contributed to the NYCLU’s effort to secure the release of the students. This process took place alongside the work of dozens of volunteer lawyers who have stationed at JFK Airport in the wake of the executive order, tirelessly assisting other travelers in similar situations.