This article was published in The Intercept on February 11, 2017.
WHEN IT BEGAN to dawn on Marjan Vayghan that her uncle Ali had been detained by customs enforcement at the Los Angeles International Airport, she hadn’t even heard about President Trump’s Muslim ban. On the evening of January 27, the same day Trump signed the executive order, Ali Vayeghan (he and his niece spell their names differently), an Iranian national with an American green card, was scheduled to arrive at LAX on a 7 p.m. flight. It wasn’t until 2 a.m. that a customs official confirmed to Marjan’s distraught family what they already suspected: that Ali was being held prisoner at the airport.
Marjan didn’t get any sleep until 7 that morning. Before she crawled into bed, she put up a post on Facebook, describing to her friends what had happened to her uncle.
When she woke up at noon and checked her newsfeed, Marjan told me, “My friends had just gone crazy.” Her post had caught fire. Her friends were livid about the travel ban, which Marjan now learned was what was behind her uncle’s predicament. Her father called and told her that all her friends were there at the airport already. “The angry feminist friends from your art shows who don’t wear makeup are hugging your mom,” he told her. A few hours later, while she was on her way to LAX, her father called again. “It’s not just your friends anymore,” he said. By now, protesters had begun to arrive at the airport to show their solidarity with the detained travelers and their opposition to the executive order. By the time Marjan left LAX late that night, the crowd had grown to hundreds. By the following day, it would be thousands.
After 20 hours in detention, with no provision of food or sleeping accommodations, during which time Customs and Border Protection tried to get him to sign away his residency (he refused), Ali was put on a plane to Dubai, where he was expected to connect to a flight back to Tehran, and to somehow get through customs in both countries with “REVOKED” written across his visa with a red sharpie.
Peter Bibring, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, had rushed to file a request for an injunction when he heard about Ali’s deportation order. But by the time the court received it, there was no time for a ruling before Ali’s flight took off. The plane left Los Angeles to Dubai with Ali on it.
On the afternoon of February 2, Ali Vayeghan, apparently the first person to be deported out of LAX under Trump’s executive order, became the first person to be brought back into the country under a court ruling that rejected the legal and constitutional basis of Trump’s ban. The ACLU hadn’t been able to prevent Ali’s removal from the United States, but it had managed to secure his return.
Ali stepped off the plane and into the embrace of his niece. The mayor was there to shake his hand. So was a giant, frenzied scrum of reporters (myself among them), holding their cameras and their phones aloft to get even a passing shot of the family’s reunion. Protesters were there, too, holding up signs welcoming Ali Vayeghan to the United States of America.
“He is now a lawful permanent resident of the United States,” Bibring told me. “We’re hopeful that the government will respect that.”