After an 11-hour flight to New York City on Jan. 27, 2017, Darweesh, then 58, stood craving a Marlboro just before 6 p.m., when a customs officer looked up without stamping his passport. There was a problem.
As Darweesh’s flight was in the air headed to John F. Kennedy International Airport, Trump had signed Executive Order 13769, a hastily orchestrated 90-day ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. It immediately created a nascent presidency’s first crisis.
Thousands already en route to America faced immediate deportation upon their arrival. Tens of thousands of enraged protesters descended on airports. The next night, a federal judge’s ruling brought the entry ban to a screeching halt.
Few issues have been as central to the Trump administration’s approach as immigration, specifically who can enter the country and who can stay. During last week’s State of the Union address, Trump made it clear that the immigration fight he started a year ago would remain a priority.
“It is time to begin moving towards a merit-based immigration system,” Trump said. “One that admits people who are skilled, who want to work, who will contribute to our society and who will love and respect our country.”
This account of the first emergence of the entry ban — a new version of which is still being litigated in the courts — draws on two dozen interviews, a review of court records and transcripts, and a recently released inspector general’s report, which concluded that the ban’s chaotic implementation left top Department of Homeland Security officials “largely caught by surprise.” According to several current and former administration officials, Trump had not even seen the ban’s final text until the day he signed it.
Perhaps more than any other event, the 30 chaotic hours after Trump’s initial entry ban set the tone for the tumultuous year to come, during which sudden policy decisions or off-the-cuff statements intended to feed Trump’s conservative base often seemed to imperil his prerogatives.
“It was the opening salvo that Trump was going to be an anti-immigrant president — he actually meant his most visceral anti-immigration rhetoric from the campaign trail,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University, who said the entry ban’s implementation, more than any other presidential action in Trump’s first year, gave birth to the movement among the left to staunchly resist the administration.
“It brought a new fear into Americans that we had an extreme right-wing president,” Brinkley said. “And that he is going to use executive power on Friday night when nobody is watching.”
Even among those who support the ideology behind the entry ban, there remains a sense of frustration that the way it was rolled out overshadowed what they see as the policy’s merits.
“Your impression of it is very likely driven by your impression of the president,” said Andrew Arthur, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors less immigration. “Very few people ever talk about whether this is a good policy or a bad policy.”
Officials both inside and outside of the administration, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to address the subject publicly, say the confusion that engulfed the entry ban spawned from how few people had been fully briefed on the specifics of the executive order. Many didn’t even know it was coming.
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
As a candidate, Trump had responded to the December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., which left 14 dead, by calling for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration. Trump and campaign surrogates defended their calls for a ban by saying that they believed immigrants from some countries were not being vetted carefully enough, which they said threatens national security.
Later, inside the transition team, a ban was being crafted — the brainchild, one administration official said, of “Steve and Steve,” or Trump senior advisers Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller.
As the inauguration approached, advisers say, Bannon agitated in favor of quickly enacting a ban, which he argued would delight Trump’s base and send an early, definitive message about the administration’s immigration priorities. On the whiteboards of his White House office, where Bannon kept a list of Trump’s campaign promises, the entry ban was listed as a key priority.
But the specifics, Bannon insisted, should not be circulated too broadly to avoid them falling into the hands of Obama holdovers still staffing most federal agencies, officials said.
“Nobody knew anything about the announcement, the policy — there was no briefing; there no was message point distribution,” said a senior GOP aide. “They basically just pulled the trigger internally and watched it fly.”
According to an inspector general’s report issued in recent weeks, while then-Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly was shown two early drafts, no Customs and Border Patrol officials had seen the ban’s wording before details started emerging in the national news media.
“CBP leadership received the most complete summary of the parameters of a potential [executive order] . . . from Congressional staffers who apparently were better informed . . . than CBP itself,” the report concluded.
During a 6 p.m. conference call, top Border Patrol officials were instructed to consider the ban in effect “even though DHS did not have a copy of the signed” order, the report said.
At the White House, then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was taken aback, officials said, at how many people had been kept in the dark. He began personally calling Cabinet secretaries to fill them in and brainstorm how to best defend the ban in court.
“No one had any sense of what they were doing,” a former senior administration official said.
Officially, the White House defended the travel ban roll out — arguing that just about 100 or so travelers had been detained, though DHS reports would later determine that nearly 2,000 travelers were affected. In a call with reporters two days after the ban was signed, senior administration officials declared the rollout a “massive success story in terms of implementation on every single level.”
Immigrant and civil rights groups, who had not fully anticipated how quickly the Trump administration would take action, were in a scramble of their own.
“Literally that evening, as I got off of a phone call that was about making plans to bring a lawsuit, we got the news that in fact there were people literally that minute who were being held already at the airports,” said Omar Jadwat, who runs the Immigrants’ Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “And then it was just an all-nighter.”
Hours after being taken into detention at JFK, Darweesh pleaded with customs officers not to handcuff him by telling them of how he had worked with the U.S. military.
“That’s when they told me,” he recalls. “‘You’re not allowed to enter the United States.’”
'I'm not going to accept this'
The morning of Jan. 28, 2017, would bring more chaos. Darweesh, in custody for nearly 12 hours, had been allowed to speak to a lawyer from the International Refugee Assistance Project, who promised him his family was safe and urged him not to sign any paperwork.
In Houston, the family of Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi, 33, who was en route from Iraq, got a call telling them that he too was being detained at the airport in New York.
At 7:48 a.m., the American Association of Airport Executives emailed top DHS officials with concerns from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which was expecting the arrival of 900 people now banned from the country and was going to run out of holding cells.
“I imagine if this is a problem in Seattle, it will be a huge issue nationwide,” an unnamed airport association official wrote in an email included in the IG report.
In Portland, Maine, 19-year-old Hamdia Ahmed, who had come to the United States 11 years earlier after spending her childhood in a Kenyan refugee camp, burst into tears. Then she secured a protest permit. “I was just like: I’ve cried, but I’m not going to accept this,” said Ahmed, then a sophomore at the University of Southern Maine. “Trump needed to know that we’re not going to accept this.”
A thousand miles west, Galen Denney, 38, was stewing in Indianapolis. He’d spent the two months since election night assuring a local family of Syrian refugees that the incoming president couldn’t kick them out.
“I just decided that I had to actually do something, perhaps selfishly, I had to try to release my anger,” Denney said. “I had to stand up in front of God and everyone, so to speak, and say ‘No! This is fear, people will die because of it, and it’s wrong.’ . . . I decided I was going to Indianapolis International.”
By Saturday afternoon, thousands had stormed the international arrivals terminals of airports across the nation, few of which were prepared for the spontaneous demonstrations.
In Orlando, officials scrambled to respond to the airport’s first protest in memory. In Denver, an airport which a strict protest permitting process, was besieged by hundreds of protesters, an “unprecedented” event, airport officials said.
Back in Washington, some senior members of Congress, aides say, were calling Obama administration holdovers trying to figure out what was happening while elected Democrats — hungry to channel the resistance-branded energy seen earlier that week at the Women’s March — began rushing to airports.
In New York, Congressman Jerrold Nadler and Congresswoman Nydia M. Velázquez argued for those detained to be provided attorneys. At Dulles, outside of Washington, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) led chants.
“An attack on anyone, for their religious beliefs, is an attack on the very foundation of democracy,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) declared atop a bench inside Boston’s Logan airport, red bullhorn in hand. “We are a better people than that!”
Halting the ban
With the airport protests raging into the night, some of the Trump administration’s top officials were donning tuxedos and ball gowns at the Alfalfa Club dinner, an exclusive gathering of Washington power brokers at the Capitol Hilton.
In the White House, a former official recalled, Bannon attempted to convince Trump, who was irritated by “wall-to-wall” cable coverage of the protests, that the chaos was a good thing.
Meanwhile, Justice Department attorneys were racing to a Brooklyn courtroom, where U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly had called an emergency hearing at the American Civil Liberties Union’s request — on behalf of Darweesh and Alshawi — that deportations and detentions related to the ban be halted.
Trump administration lawyers argued that the ACLU’s complaint was moot because by the time the Saturday evening hearing began both Darweesh and Alshawi, amid the outrage, had been given waivers and released from custody.
But Donnelly asked whether others being prevented from entering the country might face harm if returned to their home countries before the legality of the ban could be adjudicated. A government attorney — on a conference call from Washington — conceded that she could not.
As the judge and the Trump administration lawyers tangled, an ACLU staffer passed a note up through the courtroom.
“I was just passed a note that the government is literally as we speak putting someone back on a plane to Syria,” Lee Gelernt, an ACLU attorney in New York, shouted out to the judge.
Again, the Trump administration lawyers said they did not have any information.
“Well, that’s exactly why I am going to grant the stay,” Donnelly retorted, before instructing the administration to halt all detentions and deportations under the entry ban.
As the courtroom emptied, the ACLU attorneys were greeted by more than a thousand ralliers who were joyously celebrating outside.
“The emotion was overwhelming, just all of the people cheering,” Gelernt said. “The fact that we were able, in 24 hours, to have it blocked gave people hope that you could fight back.”
Of the 1,976 immigrants who were detained as a result of the initial entry ban, 1,784 were ultimately admitted to the United States, according to DHS records. The roughly 200 others returned to their countries of origin, in some cases, immigration attorneys say, because they had signed DHS paperwork while being detained under the ban.
Senior administration officials said that while some in the White House considered the ruling a blessing in disguise, Trump instructed Bannon and Miller to do whatever they could to restore the ban.
The administration then issued a second entry ban — which the courts again interceded to block — and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court fashioned a compromise that allowed the ban to go into effect, with exceptions. Travelers who could prove a “significant connection” to the United States — such as family members living in the country or an awaiting job or schooling opportunity — were allowed to enter.
When that version of the entry ban expired last fall, the Trump issued a third version, imposing various restrictions on travelers from Syria, Libya, Iran, Yemen, Chad, Somalia, North Korea and Venezuela. After the predictable legal challenge, the Supreme Court announced last month that it will take up the case.
It took six months, but Darweesh was able to secure a green card. After living in North Carolina for a few months, he moved to Nashville, where he works for an asphalt company run by a soldier he once worked with in Iraq.
“All of the people I’ve met in America have been wonderful,” Darweesh said during a recent interview. “Every morning before I go outside, I say a prayer for the United States and all of its wonderful people.”