WASHINGTON, D.C. - Eight days ago, on the morning of Saturday, January 28, Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) was planning to go to synagogue to say a Kaddish prayer for his late mother, who recently passed away. As he was leaving his apartment, Nadler got a call from one of his staff members, who told him that an emergency was taking place at John F. Kennedy International Airport as a result of President Trump's executive order banning the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Nationals of those countries, the aide explained, were detained at the airport, and could possibly be deported to their countries of origin. Among them were foreign citizens who had worked alongside the U.S. military in Iraq, and could be in danger if they were forced to return there.
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"Had she called me five minutes later, I would have already shut down my phone and gone to shul," Nadler said in an interview with Haaretz this week, recalling the events of the previous weekend. Once he learned about the situation evolving at the airport, he changed his plans and took a taxi to J.F.K. On the way, he received a call from Rep. Nydia Velazquez, another Democrat from New York, who was also heading there. "I told her I just got into a cab. We met there and started working together," he said.
Later that day, thousands of people would participate in demonstrations at airports across the U.S., and dozens of members of Congress would show up to help those detained as a result of Trump's controversial executive order. On that morning, however, the country was still in shock, and as Nadler and Velazquez arrived at Kennedy Airport, they were greeted by only a handful of lawyers who had shown up at the airport to try and help those detained because of the travel ban. There were reports of passengers being taken off airplanes; families reported that their loved ones were not appearing after their flights landed, and officials at Customs and Border Protection weren't answering questions.
The first two people that Nadler found himself trying to help were both from Iraq – one of them an interpreter who worked with the U.S. military for years, and the other an Iraqi refugee whose wife worked with U.S. forces and had immigrated to Texas. Both of these Iraqi citizens were refused entry to the U.S. and faced the threat of deportation as a result of Trump's new policy, signed less than a day earlier, despite their and their family's history of assisting American forces on the ground in their home country.
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The former interpreter, Hamid Darweesh, landed at J.F.K. with his family on Friday night. While his wife and kids entered the U.S. without any problems, he was stopped and taken for questioning. Darweesh worked for years with the U.S. government, including as an interpreter for the 101st Airborne Division. His wife and children waited for hours for him to emerge from the customs area, to no avail. As it became clear he wasn't going to be released, lawyers from the International Refugee Assistance Program, as well as a private attorney who assisted the family with their immigration process, arrived at the airport to try and solve the situation.
"My legislative director heard about this on Saturday morning," Nadler told Haaretz. "She called one of the lawyers and asked if it would help them to have a member of Congress come over there. They said it would." Nadler said he had no second thoughts about going to the airport once he heard all of that: "I believe it was, by all means, pikuach nefesh," he explained, referring to the concept of violating Jewish law if it will save a life. That turned out to be true in the case of Darweesh, who had left Iraq with his family because he was at risk following his work with the U.S. military, yet was now facing the threat of deportation back to the country he had fled.
Like at least ten other people who were being held at the customs area on that Saturday morning as a result of the executive order, Darweesh could not see a lawyer for hours. "We were trying to get the lawyers in touch with these people. We were in the public area of the arrivals hall, and the Customs and Border control wouldn't let anybody through into the secure area, where they were holding those they detained. I thought at first it was some secret area, but it's just customs, and they were guarding it as if it was high secret," said Nadler. "They wouldn't let the attorneys in. At some point, someone got out of there, and we [Nadler and Rep. Velazquez] held the door open and stepped in. A bunch of cops told us to step out, to go back to the public area."
Nadler and Velazquez replied: "We'll step out as soon as we can talk to whoever is in charge here." A hectic scene ensued, but eventually, "after a few minutes, we finally got to speak to the director there and the deputy, and as the day went on, the cops got more relaxed. We didn't insist to go through the doors, and since it was still morning, they saw that no mob was coming." At 12:30 P.M., Darweesh was allowed to enter the U.S. after almost 20 hours in custody. The first thing he did was appear before the cameras together with Nadler, Velazquez and his lawyers. He said that America was "the greatest nation with the greatest people in the world," and that he liked Donald Trump, but didn't understand his policy. He also said that his hands were cuffed for hours, asking, "do you know how many soldiers I touch by this hand?" A small crowd of protestors – it would take hours before thousands would pour into the airport – cheered in the background. "I was a bit annoyed, because the protestors made a lot of noise and it was hard to hear Hamid at certain points," Nadler recalled.
Soon after the improvised press conference, Nadler's aides began receiving calls from offices of other members of Congress who wanted to send their bosses to the closest airport to take similar action. By the end of the day, dozens of senators and representatives would arrive to airports across the country. Many of them, like Nadler, witnessed the confusion of the officers and agents who were tasked with enforcing the executive order, yet were not briefed in advance about its exact details.
"[The customs officials] referred some of the questions to Washington, and no answers came back," Nadler recalled. "It was being bucked up the chain of command. The executive order stated that someone on a refugee visa, only the Secretary of Homeland Security could approve their entrance to the country." Earlier this week, following the events at J.F.K. and other airports, the LA Times reported that the Pentagon was drawing up a list of Iraqis who helped the U.S. military in hopes of avoiding other cases like that of Darweesh.
Nadler told Haaretz he was optimistic about the chances of Trump's executive order being rejected by the courts. The interview took place hours before a federal judge in Seattle halted the order's implementation. Nadler added that despite Republican control in both houses of Congress, it was important for Democrats to "make a lot of noise" on the issue and that he believed the "public outcry across the country" was going to grow. "Most Republicans right now are either shutting up or going along with it," Nadler said. "We'll see where it goes legally and publicly. I think we have some very real prospects of success."
Nadler called the executive order "disgusting," adding that it was especially symbolic for the Trump administration to sign it on International Holocaust Remembrance Day – while at the same time putting out a statement that omitted any Jewish connection to the Holocaust. "This is Steve Bannon's White House," Nadler said. "It's white nationalist operations. It was part of their campaign, which used anti-Semitic memes. Trump was spreading and retweeting things he got from anti-Semitic websites, and then said – 'I didn't know that it was anti-Semitic.' Why were you reading it in the first place? That's the question."
The president has a Jewish daughter and a son-in-law who comes from a family of Holocaust survivors, and both are very close to him. Do you really think this thing was intentional?
"A report just came out that the State Department prepared a different statement, and the White House omitted the Jews from its version Historically, plenty of people who persecuted Jews or were involved in anti-Semitism had Jewish friends or even relatives. These two things are not mutually exclusive. Trump may have a great regard for Jared Kushner and Ivanka, but he's let Steve Bannon do these things." Nadler added that the affair had clear "anti-Semitic themes."
"It's long been a form of Holocaust denial, originating in Soviet times, to minimize the Jewish part of the Holocaust, to build monuments and hold commemorations of the Holocaust without mentioning the Jews. The U.S. has done a lot of work on this issue, through the State Department; members of Congress have put pressure on some Eastern European countries on this issue. So now, when the White House does something that we've condemned when it was done by governments abroad, what signal are we sending? Combating anti-Semitism has been a bipartisan priority for a long time – but it's not clear what is the White House position moving forward, when the White House puts itself in the camp of Holocaust denial."