Muslim ban detainees at JFK are being pressured to relinquish legal immigration status


President Donald Trump's so-called Muslim ban executive order has already prevented scores of people from entering the U.S., including some with legal immigration status. Late Saturday, though, a U.S. district court temporarily halted the deportation of those travelers. While the travelers, citizens of seven blacklisted Muslim-majority countries, are not supposed to be deported, many are still languishing in detention in airports across the U.S.

Immigration officials, though, are trying to find another way to send those travelers home: keeping them from making it into the country by revoking their legal status.

According to lawyers spread out in teams across John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, multiple detainees are being pressured to sign a form typically called a "withdrawal of application for admission." Despite having the long-term legal right to stay in the country, the scared and nervous detainees, the lawyers said, are being asked to revoke their status so they can be sent back to their countries of origin.

"What we've heard is that the detainees are told that they can sign the forms, go home, it'll all be better and it'll be like this all never happened," Melissa Trent, a representative of the lawyers, said in an interview on Sunday morning at Kennedy Airport. "It gives them authority to put these people back on planes and send them home."

The forms are being presented in English to people who don't speak the language well. One organizer with the lawyers said by phone late Saturday night that they'd seen one of the signed forms firsthand. Lawyers are urging detainees not to sign any forms at all.

This is a tactic familiar to immigration lawyers who have dealt with Customs and Border Patrol officials in the past. Immigration officials trying to turn away detainees will tell someone that giving up their lawful status is an easy out, and that the immigrant won't have a deportation on their record.

Several lawyers said in interviews that the language barrier is often used as a weapon against immigrants in these circumstances.

"They're told it's a good deal, because they're told that they'll be released from detention and go home, but they often don't understand the full depth of what they're signing," said Lauren Reiff, an immigration lawyer with the New York Legal Assistance Group in an interview. Reiff  was at Kennedy airport as a volunteer.

The corps of lawyers who've been camped out at Kennedy Airport's terminal 4, swilling coffee at a cafe where they've set up their home base, have so far managed to stop any of the detainees here from being sent home. Lawyers have filed at least 20 habeas corpus petitions from the airport. It's not clear how many remain in detention on Sunday — and official information from immigration authorities is scarce. 

When word came down at the terminal 4 that there'd be deportees on a 1:00 p.m. Eastern flight out of the country, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) arrived at Kennedy Airport to speak with immigration officials and assure families that won't be happening.

"We're hopeful that these individuals will be released on a rolling basis throughout the day," Jeffries told reporters outside the airport. "The entire executive order is a farce. It's a smokescreen. It has nothing to do with trying to keep this country safe. And we urge the Trump administration to abandon it immediately."

Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017, 3:30 p.m.: This post has been updated.