It is a singular feeling to taxi into an airport for the purpose of protest. Confused, insofar as travel or receiving travelers is generally a joyful experience, albeit one laced with some anxiety. Walking into a protest is altogether different. There is hope, but one boldly underlined by frustration, dismay, and disillusionment. It is not a joyful sensation.
Had someone told me only days ago that this was where I’d find myself, I might have balked. The idea that our ports of entry would suddenly shut, that the unwieldy machinery of Customs and Border Protection would, with the stroke of a pen, clamp down with all its bureaucratic might, did not seem a real possibility.
Saturday, entering Terminal 4 via departures at JFK, I passed seemingly unbothered travelers blankly unloading luggage at the curb, burdened only by their own tensions. This was the threshold into some other United States, where human rights and dignity are suspended at the President’s capricious whim.
The scene at arrivals: Clusters of angled, tightly clenched bodies staring intently towards the doors back to the gates, or speaking conspiratorially to each other; a dense police presence at all entries and egresses, interspersed by the perennial livery drivers and eager family members. The air is charged with polarities: fear and pleasure, excitement and dismay, disappointment and hope.
My aim was to join the protesters outside, offer my body and voice to the indignant chorus. But en route to the exit I paused to watch several of my kind—the best attorneys, even when still, have a coiled preparedness about them—behind the cordoned-off area, perched at the door where arrivals would (or should) descend to their waiting loved ones. Behind me and across the street, a vibrant pool of conscientious resisters packed into a narrow traffic island, a roiling isthmus of discontent bordered by a sea of blue uniforms, bristling with riot paraphernalia. Two familiar politicians and a city official I’ve worked alongside joined the scrum of advocates.
We all watched them from behind the rope. I managed to locate another volunteer attorney who was in direct contact with the coordinators of the advocacy efforts—the legal eagles at the arrivals door. She’d just gotten word that people had been detained at two other terminals—7 and –but who and when they did not know. Two other volunteer attorneys materialized to join our conversation. Before I could decide what I was doing, we rushed off to Terminal 7. We passed more protesters, signs at the ready. I was tempted to embrace or high five them as we brushed past each other.
At the smaller Terminal 7 there was relative quiet. No police, only taxi drivers and a smattering of waiting friends and relatives. Our task was to locate the family members of those being held behind the opaque Homeland Security curtain, interview them, and channel that information back to our guides in Terminal 4. We scanned the arriving flights, wondered whether an individual from one of the blocked countries could be on a 2:30 flight from Japan, paced the terminal in search of distraught faces. Someone though to tear apart a folder and fashion signs that read “Immigration Attorneys.” With these we stood adjacent to the drivers and their similar, more specific, identifiers.
Finally, we located a family—a mother in headscarf rushed toward one of the volunteers, seemingly on the verge of collapse, a well-creased man strolling in her wake. They had been waiting there since the morning for his fiancé, who was to arrive on Qatar Air. Another attorney took charge of this triage and I faded back so as not to overwhelm.
A second family approached: two young sisters, a brother, and a father, I discerned. They were there to meet their mother/wife, who was to arrive on an Immigrant Visa, which, in immigration parlance, means she was coming in order to become a green card holder. Under normal circumstances the stamp in one’s passport at customs seals the deal. All the messy paperwork would have been dealt with beforehand. Not today, though. That Iraqi family—all are US citizens—had been waiting desperately for their mother since 7:30 that morning, with only a shred of information. They had been told she was being returned to Iraq that evening, on a 9:30 flight. One of the daughters was still clutching a bundle of hopeful white roses. The most vocal daughter, perhaps because she was the one who petitioned her mother in the first place, was the most visibly disconsolate. Her weary eyes found mine, and she asked me, “How can they do this?” The family had done everything right: paid the correct fees, undergone the proper screening, and filed all of the arduous forms on time. How could the government change their position on her mother’s case—“She’s not a danger to anyone!”—in midair? To these questions and others I could only furrow my brow, offer my own heartfelt frustrations and apologies for the actions of my (our) country, and insist that we would do everything in our meager power to help.
In truth, I felt utterly impotent. I was pressing a pinky finger to the gaping wound in the dam, praying the water wouldn’t drown us. As an immigration attorney I am accustomed to explaining the discretionary, often arbitrary, vagaries of the law. But this situation was without precedent, and so without guidance. The new policy was sprung on us all—even those charged with enforcing it—without notice. We were finding our way in the dark, those in need clamoring behind us.
Our President defended his policies as a necessity, which would only impact a small number of people. I imagine many in this country saw those affected as collateral damage in a righteous war on those seeking to do us harm. But I wonder how the President, or those who believe in these policies, would answer the questions that young woman—a US citizen—asked me in Terminal 7.
Is it right to upend the lives of some, without explanation or warning, to serve some greater ideological end? And if those individual lives are somehow less valuable, who makes that calculation, and with what information? I’m sure some would have responses to these questions, but none would speak to the hurt and harm that has already been done to the families I encountered at JFK this past Saturday. What they have gone through cannot be undone. I can only conclude that if we are to tune out the voices of the most vulnerable, listening instead to the political rhetoric and Twitter chatter, we will be weaker for it as a nation, and as a people.
Every moment we are mute or indifferent to these policies is a degradation to our humanity. We are better than this. Now let’s prove it.