So many people with signs. They were streaming in from the parking lot in little groups — three here, two more there, a group of five laughing as they hurried in against the chill. Then entering the concrete halls of the Dulles International Airport, there was the sound, bouncing. Instead of announcements about baggage claim carousels, all you could here were the chants. “Love, not hate, makes America great.” “No hate; no fear. Immigrants are welcome here.” Every now and then, the chants would break into cheers and “Welcome home!” or “Welcome to America” as people would emerge from the doors leading back to the secure customs and border screening areas.
The scrum of lawyers waiting by the CBP (Customs and Border Protection) administrative door numbered at a few dozen when we arrived on Saturday afternoon. Some wore suits, but others had clearly rushed over without changing from the clothes they had selected for weekend chores or relaxing. One lawyer held up her hastily-written sign — “Free Legal Help” and paced in a small circle, rotating the sign for maximum visibility. Another lawyer, also a woman, wove in and out of the groups seated in the waiting area around Baggage Claim 15, also holding a sign that promised assistance.
Information was limited. Some of the flights that had already landed came from points of origin frequented by travelers who might be affected by the Executive Order. There was some sense that individuals who should have been out of customs had not yet appeared, based both on reports from immigration attorneys whose expected clients had not yet appeared and on a quick survey of the drawn and worried faces on so many of the families waiting.
More lawyers appeared, and what was approximately twenty when we arrived grew exponentially. That, coupled with the steady increase of people there to protest the Executive Order and to assure those entering the country that they were welcome and loved, led police to put up dividers to try and keep the crowds around Baggage Claim 15 contained.
In the midst of this hubbub, the families sat and waited. They shifted anxiously. One woman, with a perfect blond bob, walked up and down the aisles, tears always ready in her eyes. When attorneys or worried onlookers spoke with her, offering assistance or noting concern, she would smile brightly, falsely, and promise everything was fine. Then she would hurry on and the tears would fall.
Hours passed. More flights landed. Flights that inevitably held people traveling from the Middle East, including one from Istanbul. But the number of people emerging from the CBP doors did not match the number of people who would have arrived on those flights.
Two individuals originally from Iran who had been detained for hours emerged and spoke in Farsi to a lawyer. They shared that fifty or sixty people who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent had been pulled by officials, had their papers taken away. They were sitting in a large, open space, scared. Some were crying. They weren’t allowed to ask questions; they were told they were not allowed to talk on their telephones. The did not know what was happening. There were women, families, elderly, children.
Lawyers hand-wrote declarations and called colleagues, waiting by phones to translate information from the ground into legal documents. Huddling around dying cellphones, people at Dulles then reviewed the information, sending responses approving or editing. Urgency thrummed beneath. Who was being put onto a plane and sent to hostile countries? Who might be removed, never to be seen again. More lawyers arrived, this time with printers, paper, power strips. Had anyone remembered to bring extra ink cartridges?
Some family members shot grateful smiles toward the lawyers. They shook hands or made little, glancing bows. Others, like the woman with the blond bob, pretended not to see the lawyers at all, hurrying past. She seemed to compulsively keep moving, keep smiling. Perhaps anything less would mean she would crumble. We could see the fear wearing on her and the other families.
Around 9pm, the lawyers were called to gather, our circle so large that as we strained to hear. There was a legal victory in a federal court in New York. Details were thin, but it seemed that removal — at least — was put on hold. The message tumbled out through the rings; to those standing in the center, it was a waterfall of sound and effect. You could catch the same words rolling out further and further, sparking cheers and smiles.
While in that same circle, another lawyer rushed to an outer edge and pushed inward. We had won another victory, this time in a federal court in Virginia. There the Judge had ordered that the government officials must let attorneys back to see the Legal Permanent Residents being detained. That message, shouted, earned a roar. Television cameras swiveled. The chanting paused as the crowd turned to see why it was that the lawyers suddenly were the ones making all the noise.
But then nothing. Lawyers were not allowed back. The positivity of the crowd chanting helped keep spirits from tumbling too far. The anguish or quiet determination or resignation or fear-laced hope on the faces of the families waiting was a testament to those stuck behind the doors guarded by men with guns. The crowd’s chants began to shift. “Let them see their lawyers NOW!” “Let them in!” “Let in the 5-year-old!” Because yes, those detained included a small boy, whose mother had been waiting all day. She and her family clutched balloons.
The lawyers began murmuring about contempt. Was the government really going to ignore the orders of the federal court? There is a reason why Shakespeare’s villain quips “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Was the rule of law going to be so flagrantly flouted?
Reports circulated that rather than allow lawyers back in compliance with the federal court order, the CBP officials had decided they were, instead, going to release the legal permanent residents. But federal court orders are not optional. Government officials do not get to decide whether they will abide by them. They do not get to come up with alternatives they find preferable. And yet. No lawyers were allowed back.
A trickle of people began to flow through the doors. Women in headscarves. Families with small children. The woman with the blond bob ran when a woman in a headscarf, sitting in a wheelchair, was maneuvered out, an exclamation sighing out of her as she ran. But then, minutes later, she was back. Alone. It was not her loved one.
The little boy came out, to approving roars of the crowd. His mother gathered him up, kissing. Kissing. More than one of us shed a tear. The woman with the blond bob paced.
Then just before 11pm, yet another wheelchair appeared. The exclamations from the woman with the blond bob were unmistakable. This was her person. Running through the aisles, focused on getting to the point where she could gather this beloved elder up. Where she could cover her with kisses. Where she could assure herself, through touch, that this little old woman, shriveled in her wheelchair, who had been detained for hours on end, was safe and whole. That in the name of our American safety, the CBP had not sacrificed too harshly the safety and sanctity of this little old woman, shriveled in her wheelchair.
And we wept. This is not how it should be. We profess to be a nation of freedom. We profess to be a nation of laws. Neither seemed true at Dulles International Airport on Saturday night.
And yet, as we walked back down the concrete halls to the parking lot that night, there they were. More people with signs, streaming in. More Americans, remembering who are supposed to be. There is hope.
We would return the next day, to once again be told by CBP officials that no lawyers would be allowed back. But the lawyers, we will keep coming, with our declarations and briefs and arguments in court. And we will keep coming to places like Baggage Claim 15, ready to aid if needed. We will keep waiting with the families for the American promise to be made real for their loved ones.