ACLU attorneys in California win release of LAX detainees, but say others still held

Protesters have gathered at LAX in the arrivals level of Bradley International Terminal.
Protesters have gathered at LAX in the arrivals level of Bradley International Terminal.
Josie Huang

Lawyers representing legal U.S. residents detained at Los Angeles International Airport have successfully petitioned federal judges for their release, including a woman who was granted citizenship and has her swearing-in ceremony next month.

As of Sunday afternoon, the ACLU and other lawyers could not say how many people were still being detained at LAX as part of the enforcement of President Donald Trump's executive order temporarily limiting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.

The order created confusion and protests around the country this weekend, including at LAX where a second day of protests on Sunday disrupted access to the terminals. U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to questions from KPCC and others about the numbers still detained.

“CBP is not communicating with anyone — not members of Congress, not NGO’s, not the volunteer lawyers that are at the airport right now,” said Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrant rights for ACLU of California. “All we have is the anecdotal information coming in through family members at the airport. So we know there are quite a number of people who are still detained — we just don’t know the exact numbers.”

Since Saturday, lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union in Southern California have filed two actions that call for the release of people who were detained at LAX, Pasquarella said.

The first was a temporary restraining order and petition on behalf of a person who was detained after he tried to re-enter the U.S. with a valid visa. Before the court could rule on the petition, Ali Khoshbakhti Vayeghan was sent to Dubai, where he was held in custody by local authorities working with U.S. border officials. Pasquarella said they threatened to transport him to Iran. 

But on Sunday afternoon, Judge Dolly Gee of Federal District Court of Central California granted the ACLU’s request and ordered Vayeghan be returned to the U.S. on his valid visa, according to Pasquarella.


The second action was filed on behalf of people with valid green cards who were being detained at LAX. Pasquarella said the action was filed around 1 a.m. Sunday and CPB officials began releasing people around that hour. 

The ACLU is now amending the action to add new information about other people who they have learned are still detained at LAX. Pasquarella said the amended action will be filed "within half an hour."

ACLU of Southern California also filed a petition Sunday in federal court on behalf of two Iranian-born travelers who are legal U.S. residents.

The women say their detention violated U.S. law and the First and Fifth Amendments of the constitution and amounted to discrimination. They claimed that even after a New York federal judge issued an order on Saturday barring deportations under the president’s ban, border agents at LAX asked them to sign a form abandoning their legal permanent resident status.

The women, Fatema Farmad and Marzieh Moosavizadeh Yazdi, were returning Saturday from Iran after visiting family when immigration agents at LAX stopped them, according to their court filing.

Farmad was held for about 12 hours, according to her brother, Alireza Farmad, who waited at the Bradley International Terminal unable to find out his sister's status.
Fatema Farmad is scheduled to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen on Feb. 13. She had her 11-month-old son with her when she was detained. Yazdi, 72, is in poor health and does not speak English, her attorneys said in their petition. 
The women charged that President Trump and others named in the petition are trying to coerce them to give up their legal permanent residency status or withdraw their applications for entry into the country.
They asked the court to issue an injunction ordering that they not be detained, declaring the detentions were unauthorized, and prohibiting the government from accepting any voluntary withdrawal of admission or voluntary agreement to relinquish their legal status.
They also asked the court to order the government to refrain from taking retaliatory action against them and to stop preventing them from entering the U.S. as authorized permanent residents.

On Sunday, immigration attorneys offering free help to families of detainees commandeered a bar at LAX by the arrivals area.

Michael Hagerty, a spokesman for the group, said on Sunday he couldn’t say for sure how long lawyers would be staked out at the airport after the weekend.

“But I can almost guarantee that there will be some attorneys here, even if in fewer numbers,” Hagerty said. “Because there will be detainees that are going to be coming in tomorrow.”

Each day, he said, “the legal landscape changes with these cases.”

“We'll see whether people are even allowed on flights from other countries to come to the United States, or we'll see if maybe they start releasing people without detaining them the way they are now,” Hagerty said.

Zakia Kator, a 41-year-old attorney from Corona, marched at LAX on Sunday with her husband, a Pakistani-American contractor, and their 7-year-old daughter, who sat on his shoulders.

Kator is a former refugee from Afghanistan who came to the U.S. with her family after the Russian invasion in the early 1980s. 

“It hits home deeply because I can see myself in the shoes of these Muslim refugees and I can see being banned from coming here,” Kator said. “Who knows what would have happened to me and my family if we were not allowed the opportunity to come here and get a chance to live a better life.”

Amir Amiri , an Iranian-American government worker from San Diego, waited anxiously at LAX on Sunday for his wife and mother-in-law who were returning from a visit to their native Iran. His wife is a U.S. citizen but his mother-in-law is a green-card holder and was detained upon their arrival.

He was able to text his wife, who was staying with her mother as she underwent questioning.

“I want them out,” Amiri said. “I want them to be next to me. I don’t know what’s going to happen next and a little bit of fear is going into me.”

The family was reunited about three hours after Amiri's wife and mother-in-law landed. 

Trump’s administration on Sunday defended the presidential executive action in the wake of the upheaval at the nation's airports. Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that 325,000 people from foreign countries arrived in the U.S. Saturday and 109 were detained for questioning.
“More of those people were moved out. We’ve got a couple dozen more than remain. And I would suspect as long as they’re not awful people that they will move through before another half a day today,” Priebus said.
If travelers are coming in and out of the seven countries, which he said have been identified by the Obama administration and Congress as harboring terrorists, “you’re going to be subjected temporarily with more questioning until a better program is put in place over the next several months.”

When pressed by host Chuck Todd about why countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia — where more terrorists have come from than all of the targeted countries combined — are not on the president's list, Priebus suggested perhaps they could be added later.

This story has been updated.