LETTER FROM NEW YORK : In New York, nucleus of Muslim travel ban response largely pivots away from JFK Airport


When an Executive Order signed on Friday by President Donald Trump went into effect, instituting travel restrictions for individuals from seven Muslim-majority nations and some Holders of "Green Cards," some Muslims arriving into John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens began being detained. Teams of immigration attorneys responded by filing petitions for habeas corpus seeking to meet with and to release the detainees. Activists responded by descending upon JFK Airport, drawing media coverage and thus the public's attention to the human crisis being faced by individuals being detained at JFK Airport. The convergence of events led to the negotiated release of one detainee, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, and an emergency hearing in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, where the Hon. Judge Ann Donnolly issued a temporary stay, preventing the deportation of the detainees, the first of four Federal judicial orders in response to emergency litigation seeking legal interpretation of the Executive Order.

The rapid response of attorneys and activists to support detainees at JFK Airport drew on a citizenry mobilised by the radicalism of the Trump administration. A sense of hope reportedly served to encourage protesters at JFK Airport after U.S. Reps. Nydia Velázquez (D-Brooklyn) and Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan) arrived and succeeded in negotiating the release of Mr. Darweesh. In the face of what many saw as an acute human crisis, citizens, some affiliated with community groups, traveled to JFK Airport to participate in the protest. The turnout was boosted by numerous calls-to-action made over social media. In The New York Times, a report described the protest that overtook Terminal 4 of JFK Airport as having grown "out of nowhere." To some activists with relationships with established political or advocacy groups, that description appeared to shortchange credit that some activists felt was due to established groups. Despite disagreement over what extent the rapid response of individuals was due to work of establishment groups, the fact was that Federal law enforcement officials at JFK Airport were confronted by an energized public and by U.S. Reps. Velázquez and Nadler.

During the course of the protest, the number of activists participating in the demonstration outside Terminal 4 of JFK Airport were estimated to reach as high as 2,000. Some of these activists joining the demonstration at JFK Airport came from other, earlier demonstrations, like a protest outside the Brooklyn apartment building of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York). At JFK Airport, some activists had overtaken the roadway between terminals. This impacted traffic within JFK Airport. Despite the delays in the availability of ground transportation, some travelers were reported to have celebrated the news that activists were demonstrating to denounce President Trump's Executive Order. At some point, the union of Yellow-Medallion taxi drivers instituted a limited strike in a show of solidarity with the detainees. When the ride-sharing service, Uber, continued to operate through the limited strike, activists commenced a campaign to delete Uber's app from their smartphones. When New York Police Department and Port Authority police officers restricted access to the AirTrain to JFK Airport, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) was forced to issue a rare acknowledgement of activists' First Amendment right to demonstrate. Later, when the hearing at the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn was announced, activists were able to show up at that location, in numbers also estimated to be approximately 2,000, with very short notice. After the Hon. Judge Donnolly's stay order was announced, the tech-savvy activists demonstrating outside the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse spread news of the Court's Order using social media. The haphazard growth of Saturday's demonstrations, and their economic and legal impact, was like a cup of milk that was knocked over on a kitchen island ; its contents just randomly spread everywhere.

As the size of the demonstration at JFK Airport was reaching its peak, announcements were made that many establishment groups were planning a demonstration for 2 p.m. on Sunday at Battery Park in Manhattan. The day ended with news that an estimated 11 individuals remained detained at JFK Airport. At other major airports across the Nation, an untold additional number of individuals remained detained. 

The photographs, videos, and anecdotes shared on social media of the demonstration at JFK Airport showed large, boisterous crowds. The two elected officials, who received an extraordinary amount of media mentions were U.S. Reps. Velázquez and Nadler, but that was due to their successful negotiations to secure the freedom of one of the detainees. In contrast to the productivity and the effectiveness of the demonstrations, which had taken place on Saturday, organisers for the demonstration for Sunday traded away the advantages that the locations of JFK Airport and the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse gave activists. In their place, organisers of the establishment groups that promoted the Sunday demonstration chose to stage a march from Battery Park to One World Trade Center. Participants of the march also reached Foley Square. One of the invited speakers was Sen. Schumer, who, the day before, had been targeted by activists over his support for John Kelly, President Trump's nominee to serve as secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, one of the Federal agencies enforcing President Trump's discriminatory Executive Order.

Whereas Saturday's demonstrations addressed the human crisis facing detainees, Sunday's march was a showcase for politicians.

Sunday's march from Battery Park to Foley Square attracted thousands, including many elected officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City). The establishment groups promoting the march shared over social media photographs of large crowds with powerfully-messaged protest signs, and elected officials shared their own photographs and messaging from the march. The march attracted media mentions in The New York Times, the cable news channel NY1, and the local affiliate of the ABC broadcast network. Almost as an afterthought, before Sunday's march dissipated, it was announced that there were still detainees remaining at JFK Airport. As noted by The New York Times in a report of some of the demonstrations, which took place on Sunday, "Demonstrators also returned to Kennedy Airport, though in smaller numbers than the thousands who gathered there on Saturday night."

Sunday's march was announced before it became clear that the Trump administration was not going to abide by the four Federal Court Orders, leaving organisers committed to a location and time that deprived participants of opportunities to exert the same kind of legal and financial pressure as was exerted on Saturday. For example, all of the elected officials addressing the march assembled at Battery Park were not physically located in a position to personally negotiate with airport officials for the release of detainees. Nevertheless, key nonprofit advocacy groups celebrated the size of the turnout for the march as a success.

Further legal action took place on Sunday in the Federal Court case in Brooklyn, where attorneys for the detainees complained about actions taken by the Trump administration in violation of the Court Order issued on Saturday evening, according to a report published by The New York Post. Advance questions about process submitted by Progress Queens to the press offices of the two U.S. Attorneys' Offices located in New York City were not answered.