On the chaotic day the Trump administration’s travel ban went into effect, high-level Homeland Security officials directed their staff at airports around the country to stiff-arm members of Congress and treat lawyers with deep suspicion.
Members of Congress say they’re shocked by the orders, uncovered in documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request from The Daily Beast and The James Madison Project, both of which were represented by the law office of Mark S. Zaid.
“I’m extremely troubled that CBP [Customs and Border Protection] employees would be instructed by superiors to ignore Congressional representatives trying to do their job, especially under such circumstances,” said Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat. “We suspected as much at the time, but it’s jarring to see it in black and white. I’ll be seeking more information from CBP on this matter.”
A CBP official wrote in an email on Jan. 28 that the agency’s employees were forbidden from speaking to members of Congress.
“As stated on the call earlier today, you and your staff are NOT to engage with the media or Congressional representatives at this time,” emailed Todd Owen, the executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Field Operations, at 7:49 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28. “Please make sure your subordinate Port Directors are following this direction. Please report any such requests to acting AC[REDACTED] from Congressional Affairs. Thank you.”
Owen sent that email about twenty hours after the travel ban went into effect. The ban—which blocked people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.—had already thrown airports around the country into chaos. Protesters flooded into airports by the thousands, waving signs and singing patriotic songs. Lawyers hauled laptops and printers into international baggage claim areas, trying to keep detained travelers from being deported or from accidentally signing away their green cards. And members of Congress held impromptu press conferences and demanded CBP officials tell them how many people were detained.
CBP wouldn’t tell them.
“The directives to disengage with Congressmen, blocking their oversight, is huge, and yet another example of an assault on separation of powers and our democracy,” said Hassan Ahmad, an immigration lawyer who protested at Dulles Airport.
Jennifer Gabris, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection, said this was normal.
“As part of CBP policy, all congressional inquiries are coordinated through CBP’s Office of Congressional Affairs (OCA),” she said in an email. “OCA serves as the single point of contact within CBP for all communications between CBP and Congress. OCA is committed to addressing any question or concern Members of Congress or their staffs may have related to CBP’s complex mission.”
Lawyers’ Calls: ‘Likely a Form of Telephonic Protest’
From Dulles to San Francisco, America’s international airports got extremely noisy. But there was a glaring silence through it all: from CBP, which staunchly refused to answer questions from journalists and members of Congress.
These newly obtained emails explain why that is: because senior agency officials were caught off guard just as badly as those travelers, and had to scramble to figure out how to implement the ban.
Another email, sent by a CBP official whose name was redacted, shows that the agency made a deliberate choice to ignore questions from attorneys.
“Please be aware that various locations around the country have begun receiving a high volume of calls from various individuals and others claiming to be attorneys regarding the recent Executive Order (EO),” read the email, sent out on Feb. 1 just after 3 p.m. “The callers appear to be reading from a script and they begin by identifying themselves, state they are calling regarding the EO and proceed to ask if we are following the law, the EO and ask how many people we are currently detaining.”
The official added, “This is most likely a form of telephonic protest to the EO.”
“Please advise all your personnel not to engage the callers nor respond to any questions,” the email continued. “Ensure all requests for information are referred to the Office of Public Affairs.”
In the 24 hours after the travel ban was implemented, the Office of Public Affairs was not responsive to questions about how many people were detained and whether they had access to medical care.
‘They Built a Stone Wall and Gave Us the Middle Finger’
Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who went to Dulles Airport during the ban to try to get information on people being detained, told The Daily Beast he found CBP’s behavior appalling.
“I think it’s outrageous,” he said. “Members of Congress have an Article 1 responsibility in the Constitution [to oversee the executive branch], and it is completely improper and, from my point of view, extralegal for the CBP to decide they’re going to ignore the elected representatives of the people.”
He added that CBP’s Congressional Affairs office didn’t answer any of his questions during the ban—despite the fact that they were the only CBP component authorized to talk with members of Congress.
“They built a stone wall and gave us the middle finger,” Connolly said. “They feel they can do that with impunity because Trump’s in the White House and Sessions is at the Department of Justice, and they can behave outside the law or inside the law as they see fit.”
The emails also show that CBP carefully monitored the airport protests. One email listed how many protesters were at major airports as of the evening of Jan. 29: 2,500 at JFK in New York, 1000 at Dallas-Fort Worth, 1000 at LAX, 800 in San Francisco, and 300 at dulles. The email also noted that Reps. Maxine Waters and Ted Lieu asked for information at the Los Angeles airport and were directed to Congressional affairs.
In Los Angeles, officials “staggered the release of arriving international passengers due to the protests and the resulting congestion” at the airport.
That email included several photos of protesters, and noted that Univision filmed protesters at the San Antonio airport. It also noted that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, and California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom all made appearances at airport protests.
The emails released to The Daily Beast had more than a dozen photos of groups protesting at airports. They were included in emails briefing DHS officials on the chaos unfolding at airports. The fact that Homeland Security officials shared these photos will concern some privacy advocates.
“This is something you’d expect from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI,” said Jake Laperruque, senior counsel to the Constitution Project. “It’s extremely disturbing, especially given DHS’s history of cataloging Black Lives Matter protesters and President Trump’s pledge to prosecute Black Lives Matter activists.”
Gabris, the CBP spokeswoman, said officials shared the photos to track the response to the travel ban.
“Some Field Offices submitted pictures with their input for the daily report to provide a visual of port operations during the implementation of the Executive Order,” Gabris said. “Photos were not requested or required as part of the daily reporting and have not been used for any other purpose than to provide a visual of operations at the airports.”
CBP also had at least one plainclothes police officer monitoring protesters in Detroit, according to the email. And CBP officers in Philadelphia were encouraged to wear plain clothes when they arrived for work at the airport because of the protesters.
Federal judges later blocked the travel ban’s enforcement. Months later, the Supreme Court reversed that, letting the White House put a narrower version of the ban back in place. CBP re-implemented the ban without any chaos. But members of Congress are still angry.
“What you’ve discovered does not surprise me,” Connolly said of the FOIA’d documents. “It just outrages me.”
—with additional reporting by Noah Shachtman