How a terminal became a flashpoint in America’s culture war
‘Under the new administration I have to wait in the airport for five or six hours, while my brother in law is detained for no reason? This is insane!’
Outside O’Hare’s Terminal Five, a group of 200 or so protesters gathered around a man with a megaphone. Inside, dozens of lawyers worked phones and laptops from a makeshift command center set up across from the McDonald’s. Lawyers with immigration experience took point; others helped as they could, doing intake interviews and getting coffee, as travelers maneuvered wheelie bags through the scrum. Off to one side of it all, a man and woman watched.
“It’s just wrong to systematically alienate a whole group of people,” said the man, Ronald Davis. “It really resonates with me, as an African American male in this country. Because I’m seen as a criminal; I see it every day.”
An American Airlines ramp agent, Davis had walked over to O’Hare’s Terminal Five Saturday afternoon on a break with his coworker, Candice Banks, to check out the growing protest against Donald Trump’s executive order banning all refugees from entering the U.S., and suspending visas for travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries.
“We heard about it on the news,” said Banks, shaking her head, “and wanted to see what was going on.”
It was a little after 5 p.m. Earlyish, and the protest was still small. It was before Chicagoans descended on the airport en masse; before a faction of the crowd surged back into the terminal and marched its length; before the trombone player showed up; before the escalators were shut down; before the protest blocked the road and police halted vehicle traffic to the terminal.
Soon, a clutch of city aldermen and other elected officials would rally the crowd with speeches — including a moving testimonial from state Sen. Daniel Biss, who declared he would not be here today if his grandparents hadn’t been allowed to emigrate from Germany in the 1930s. Across the country thousands of protesters would shut down JFK, Sea-Tac, SFO and LAX, and a federal judge in Brooklyn would issue an emergency stay of the order, preventing any of the 109 people reportedly held at airports around the country from being sent back overseas.
And around 10 p.m., the last of the 18 people being held on the other side of Terminal Five’s immigration wall would be released, to wild cheers.
One of the first of those 18 emerged from immigration pushing a cart loaded with luggage as I was talking to Davis and Banks. A resident of Park Ridge, Illinois, with a green card and dual Iranian and U.K. citizenship, Hassem declined to give his last name to the reporters that clustered around him, but said he had been traveling with his wife, a U.S. citizen, and their new baby to Iran to visit family. His brother-in-law, Mohammed Amirisefat, had been waiting for them since noon.
They all looked tired, but Amirisefat was lit.
“Under the new administration I have to wait in the airport for five or six hours, while my brother in law is detained for no reason? This is insane!”
On this, everyone agreed. It was insane. The ban, the brutal speed with which it was implemented, the fact that it was apparently not reviewed by homeland security, the global panic that ensued, the plain cruelty of it all.
What was really crazy, said Laura Debolt, a real estate lawyer who’d responded to a national call for volunteers put out by Lawyers for Good Government that morning, is that no one knows what the hell is going on. “The only way people are finding out who’s being held is if there’s a family member here who can’t find their person.” A traveler might text to say they’d landed and then disappear into thin air — or, technically, “secondary detainment,” the legal limbo in which travelers can be held for questioning, their bags searched, and their passports and phones confiscated — but as they are not yet formally in the United States, they have no right to counsel. (A federal judge ordered that legal permanent residents be allowed to speak with lawyers, but in some airports border agents defied the order.)
“This is ridiculous,” said Rebecca Kristall, another lawyer. “They’re not allowing people who have valid green cards and visas into the country!” She added, after a pause. “The stuff that’s happening right now is not the America I believe in.”
Hassem was released after hours of lobbying on his behalf by U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat representing part of Chicago and its northern suburbs. When he finally emerged, he reportedly brought with him a list of names of the others who were being held, which was in turn passed to Schakowsky’s people. All of them — except the two who were babies — were long-term or permanent residents of the United States, with the paperwork to prove it. Not one was a refugee. Any refugees, speculated Debolt, may not have able to board planes in the first place.
As Hassem and his family finally left the airport, media trailing behind, a blonde and tanned woman in a pink jacket started yelling.
“Does anyone want to take a photo of a REAL American? Who believes in what’s happening? I’m right here!”
She appeared to be fresh off a recently arrived flight from Cancun, and possibly under the influence of in-flight refreshments. And she wasn’t having it.
“We won! Go Trump! Build the wall!”
And on and on she ranted, as ever-more people poured out of the parking lot and off of the shuttle carrying signs and flags and children bundled against the cold.
“No hate, no fear! Immigrants are welcome here!” they chanted, their voices growing louder, their mass growing thicker, and fueling the marginalization and rage of this one peculiar breed of “real American.”