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Confusion marks first week of Trump immigration ban

Caroline Cracraft, right, stood outside the Council of Islamic Organization of Greater Chicago in solidarity with the Muslim community. | Maria Cardona/ Sun-Times

President Donald Trump’s week-old executive order barring travelers from a handful of predominantly Muslim countries has prompted outrage, stranded people at airports across the globe and created confusion that continues after yet another court ruling late Friday that appears to temporarily halt the travel ban.

Court rulings in Los Angeles, Virginia, Boston and Washington state, as well as “clarifications” by the Trump administration, have added to the uncertainty here in Chicago.

Friday, statements made by government attorneys defending the ban indicated that nationwide, the visas of 100,000 people have been canceled by an unpublicized order issued at the same time as the Jan. 27th immigration ban. The figure was later revised by the U.S. Department of State to “fewer than 60,000” visas.

Then hours later, a federal judge in Washington state appeared to lift the ban entirely. Friday night, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the administration will seek an emergency stay.

In Chicago, Trump’s executive order has not resulted in many people being blocked at O’Hare or Midway airports, but the new rules are not making visitors and local residents from the Middle East feel welcome, activists and attorneys say.

“In 21 years, I have never, ever seen anything like this,” said Taher Kameli, an immigration lawyer who represented an Iraqi businessman, one of two people who filed federal lawsuits in Chicago challenging the ban.

The man, identified as John Doe, was blocked from buying a return ticket after visiting his mother in Iraq. He was allowed to get a ticket Wednesday, after the White House clarified that green card holders were not subject to the ban, Kameli said.

The other local court case involved medical resident Dr. Amer Al Hossmi, who had been prevented from returning to Chicago after traveling to the United Arab Emirates to be married.

Both were able to resolve their cases successfully.

“People are upset. It’s absolutely justified,” Kameli said. “If the president wanted to create some kind of a ban, he should have given some people notice. These people take a long time to enter the country, and this is a mess.”

Local activists and lawyers are aware of only a handful of travelers who have been blocked from entering the U.S. on flights bound for O’Hare but acknowledge that getting information is difficult. ACLU attorneys requested information on the number of people detained at O’Hare and other information about the ban on Wednesday and have received no response, a spokesman said.

A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not return calls Friday.

Volunteer lawyers working from a folding table at O’Hare Airport have been fielding about 60 inquiries a day from passengers or their waiting relatives, said Vivian Khalaf, a spokeswoman for the ad hoc legal aid clinic that has been set up across from the McDonald’s at Terminal 5 since last weekend.

Muslim travelers report they have been detained for hours, quizzed about their religious faith, and asked to turn over access to their phones, and Facebook and Twitter accounts. Several have been told to be able to leave the terminal, they have to sign forms that begin the process of revoking their visa or green cards, Khalaf said.

“These are forms that are usually for people who have been out of the United States for over a year and . . . have abandoned their permanent residency,” Khalaf said. “But these are people that have only been gone for weeks or months, and have no desire to change their status.”

Customs and Border Patrol agents also don’t appear to be singling out only travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, the seven nations covered by Trump’s ban, according to Hoda Katebi, a spokeswoman for Council On American Islamic Relations-Chicago. Trump’s executive order bars all immigrants from these countries for 90 days and refugees from all countries for 120 days. Refugees from Syria are banned indefinitely.

“We have people who are being stopped who are from India, Pakistan, Jordan, all places not on the list,” Katebi said, citing information from complaints filed with the group by Muslim travelers. “What seems to get you to the top of the list is having a Muslim-sounding name.”

Questions from federal agents reportedly include “Are you Muslim?” and “Do you believe in the Quran?” and “What do you think of Trump’s election?” said Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which also has been tracking complaints of Muslim travelers.

Yohnka said the queries seem to fly in the face of White House statements that the ban is not intended to increase scrutiny on immigrants based on their Muslim faith, but because they come from countries that have been linked to terrorist activity.

“After 9/11, we heard people were asked what they thought about 9/11, what they thought about America being in the Middle East,” Yohnka said, adding that the question about travelers’ feelings on Trump — or any other U.S. official — were unique even when compared to the tighter immigration after the 2001 terror attacks.

“We never heard anybody asked about an election,” he said. “I don’t recall anybody having ever asked about George Bush.”

Kameli’s client had been visiting his ailing mother in Iraq and planned to return in time for the expected birth of his grandchild in late February. He tried to get a ticket back to Chicago on Monday, after hearing news of Trump’s ban but was not allowed to purchase a return flight, Kameli said.

The man, his wife and children all have been seeking to become U.S. citizens, and their desire to do so remains unchanged by the recent ordeal, Kameli said.

“They still believe this is one of the best countries you can live in, and they believe in the system. He’s still committed to becoming a U.S citizen.”