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JFK quiet, advocates stand ready as travel ban takes effect

Travelers arrive and depart at Terminal 4 at

Travelers arrive and depart at Terminal 4 at Kennedy Airport on June 29, 2017. Credit: Uli Seit

President Donald Trump’s revived executive order restricting travel for foreign nationals from six Muslim-majority countries took effect Thursday night at Kennedy Airport and flight terminals nationwide.

A senior administration official said earlier Thursday that Trump’s order would be “an organized and deliberate process” to enforce policy provisions authorized by the U.S. Supreme Court. A statement from U.S. Department of Homeland Security said the agency, which includes customs, “expects business as usual at our ports of entry.”

Indeed, late Thursday night at Kennedy, it appeared to be a typical travel night with no visible protests against the order.

The new restrictions began at 8 p.m. By 9:30 p.m., no disruptions for travelers were visible at Kennedy. After Trump’s first executive order restricting travel earlier this year, angry and vocal protests broke out at Kennedy and other airports across the country. Airports devolved into chaos and confusion as passengers were left stranded.

Inside Kennedy’s Terminal 4 Thursday night, attorney Camille Mackler was among six volunteers waiting at the Central Diner to help relatives and friends of those who could be affected by Trump’s latest order.

The restaurant became a hub for attorneys in January after the implementation of the first travel restrictions. Five months later, Mackler, director of legal initiatives with the New York Immigration Coalition, said it was quiet enough that her group turned down requests from attorneys offering to volunteer their services.

“We’re just here to make sure there are no problems,” Mackler said. “If there are any problems, we’re here.”

While it remained quiet at Kennedy, activists and legal representatives from immigrant and refugee groups rallied in the early evening at Manhattan’s Union Square Park to protest the ban.

The controversial policy — criticized by those who see it as unfairly singling out people of the Muslim faith — had been tied up by injunctions in federal courts. The Supreme Court this week gave it a partial go-ahead, provided that visitors and refugees would not be excluded if they have “any bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.”

Under the ban’s current version, travelers from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen who don’t meet the family test are blocked from entry for 90 days, and refugees’ entry is suspended for 120 days. The Supreme Court will not take up the case fully until it begins its next term in October.

The Trump administration presented the policy as necessary to review security procedures and address a terror risk.

“This ruling was a significant win for our national security, and President Trump was particularly gratified by the unanimity of the decision,” a senior administration official, who asked not to be identified, told reporters Thursday in Washington. “As recent events have shown, we are living in a very dangerous time, and the U.S. government needs every available tool to prevent terrorists from entering the country and committing acts of bloodshed and violence.”

Immigrant advocates who gathered Thursday morning at Kennedy denounced the high court’s decision and the ban.

The Supreme Court has “created uncertainty for people who are the most vulnerable across the world,” said Murad Awawdeh, political engagement director for the New York Immigration Coalition. “Right now, the world is watching us. The world is watching the United States of America. What they are saying is: ‘We thought that that was the country for opportunity and justice for all, but it does not seem that way.’ ”

Activists complained that the State Department is being too restrictive in its interpretation of the court’s decision. It issued instructions saying new visa applicants from affected countries must prove a relationship with a parent, spouse, child, adult son or daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law or sibling in the United States to be eligible for entry — excluding such relatives as grandparents, aunts and uncles, for example. Administration officials later said refugees also have to abide by that criteria.

Hawaii filed a court challenge to the relationships test Thursday, asking a federal judge to clarify that the administration cannot enforce the ban against fiances or relatives not defined by the administration guidelines.

Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of the refugee resettlement group HIAS, a plaintiff against the ban, said the administration’s narrow criteria “is legally and morally wrong.” He said: “These are refugees who, after fleeing for their lives, have met every requirement for resettlement, and have worked with the U.S. government and U.S.-based organizations for months or years to pass all of our tests.”

Jonathan Smith, legal director of Muslim Advocates, a group based in Oakland, California that was sending volunteers to Dulles International Airport outside Washington, called the strict interpretation of the relationship test “extremely disappointing and troubling.”

“Defining close family to exclude grandparents, cousins and other relatives defies common sense,” Smith said. “It also directly goes against the intent of the Supreme Court’s order.”

Rama Issa, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, said the latest directive personally affects her because many relatives cannot travel from her native country — war-torn Syria — and other countries to attend her wedding. She postponed the nuptials until October, but said it appears uncertain or unlikely the relatives can attend.

Issa, raised by her grandparents in Syria, said under the Trump rules they would not qualify as her “bona fide” relatives. They already live in New York, but she said keeping them from her would be unacceptable.

“To me that is outrageous,” Issa said. “I can’t even imagine what that would be, not having my grandparents close to me in a big event in my life.”

The travel ban was among Trump’s first moves after taking office on Jan. 20. He issued an executive order on Jan. 27, banning the entry of foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries and suspending refugee programs. The ban incited large protests at Kennedy and other airports and triggered chaos as customs officials questioned, detained and sent back travelers.

Civil rights advocacy groups challenged the policy in the federal courts, characterizing the restrictions as a discriminatory and unconstitutional “Muslim ban.”

The administration revised the travel ban with a March 6 order that dropped Iraq from the list of banned countries, but federal judges stopped its implementation. The Supreme Court on Monday said it would review the case in October, and allowed the partial, temporary ban to go into effect.

With Scott Eidler and the AP

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