No known terrorists were among the first detainees under our president’s executive order “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States.”
But the detainees did include a 53-year-old avowed Trump fan who fled Iraq with his family after a decade in the employ of the U.S. government, during which he was credited with saving numerous American lives as an uncommonly brave interpreter for the 101st Airborne.
Hameed Khalid Darweesh was detained for 19 hours at JFK Airport despite possessing a special visa that took him two years to obtain and happened to be issued on the day of the inauguration.
Upon his release, Darweesh still said this when reporters asked him about Trump: “I like him.”
Darweesh then added, “But I don’t know. This is a policy, I don’t know.”
The policy being Trump’s order to ban immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries—Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—for at least 90 days, and all refugees for at least 120 days. None are even the familial homeland of any of the terrorists who mounted major attack in America, including 9/11, San Bernardino, and Orlando.
The irony of this moment on Saturday became HUGE as Darweesh declared that he had seen America’s true greatness firsthand in the small army of outraged lawyers and activists who mobilized on his behalf as word spread that he and a fellow Iraqi had been detained at JFK Airport even though they had valid visas.
“This is the humanity, this is the soul of America!” exclaimed the Trump fan in giving thanks to those who had hurried to rescue him from Trump policy. “This is what pushed me to move, leave my country and come here.”
Darweesh had been tearful when he first emerged from under the WELCOME TO NEW YORK sign that hangs over the arrivals portal in Terminal 4. He had placed his hands behind his back to show how he had been handcuffed.
“What I do for this country? They put the cuffs on,” Darweesh said to reporters. “You know how many soldiers I touch by this hand?”
Even as he spoke, his story was spreading at the speed of social media to his native Iraq and everywhere else.
“Worldwide,” counter-terrorism cop on the scene later noted.
No doubt the tale of Darweesh’s Trumpian welcome to New York was of particular interest to people in Mosul, where American special forces are now urging the Iraqi army on in a grim and protracted battle with ISIS. Darweesh is said by court papers filed Friday seeking his release to have served in Mosul and in Baghdad as an interpreter for the U.S. Army.
“Between March 20, 2003 and September 30, 2013, he was contracted by the U.S. government to work in a variety of positions that placed him in substantial risk of being targeted, attacked and killed by anti-American militias and insurgents,” the papers say. “Mr. Darweesh was directly targeted twice for his association with the U.S. Armed Forces.”
The man who would later be detained at JFK Airport worked for the U.S. at Baghdad Airport between 2004 and 2005, and during that time Baghdad Police searched his house, saying they were looking for a terrorist.
“The Baghdad Police are widely known to be closely affiliated with anti-American militias,” the papers say. “Shortly after this incident, two of Mr. Darweesh’s colleagues were killed as soon as they arrived at work.”
The killing convinced Darweesh to move to Kirkuk.
“In the second instance, in July 2009, Mr. Darweesh was stopped at a market in Kirkuk where he was informed by a local shopkeeper that men were driving around in a BMW asking for him by name and the location of his house,” the papers report. “These men returned a second time the following week, and Mr. Darweesh had strong reasons to suspect that the men searching for him were terrorists.”
Darweesh fled with his wife and three children to Erbil.
“Based on these threats and his over ten years of service to the U.S. government, Mr. Darweesh applied for an Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) status on or around October 1, 2014,” the papers say, adding, “Congress created the Iraqi and Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) programs to provide safety and refuge in the United States for Iraqis and Afghans who face or have faced serious threats on account of their faithful and valuable service to the United States.”
More than a year of paperwork and vetting ensued before he obtained the necessary certification that he had “provided faithful and valuable service to the United States” and “has experienced or is experiencing a serious threat.” The visa was officially approved on January 26, 2015, but the process was not even halfway done.
“It took over two years for Mr. Darweesh’s visa and visas for his family to be processed,” the papers note. “Mr. Darweesh appeared for an in-person interview at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on April 12, 2016 and went through administrative processing, including security background checks as well as medical exams.”
On January 20, 2017, Inauguration Day, the official approval was officially approved. He received the visa in Erbil on January 27, 2017. He immediately set off for America with his wife and three children, aged 20, 15 and 7.
“Because of the sensitive and dangerous nature of Mr. Darweesh’s situation, the family immediately boarded a flight from Erbil to New York City, via Istanbul, and arrived in the United States on January 27, 2017, around 6:00 PM EST,” the papers say.
The family had tickets to fly on to Charlotte, North Carolina, but they were detained at JFK Airport by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers. Trump’s executive order had gone into effect just 78 minutes before.
“Mr. Darweesh and his family waited to be processed by CBP for about an hour,” the papers say. “Mr. Darweesh himself was moved into ‘secondary screening.' The family waited for over an hour before a CBP officer and Mr. Darweesh emerged to return passports for every member of Mr. Darweesh’s family except for Mr. Darweesh himself. Mr. Darweesh was then taken back into secondary screening.”
Darweesh was handcuffed. He sat in a chair in a holding room while his family was allowed to pass under the WELCOME TO NEW YORK sign and continue on into the arrivals area.
Word spread and a team of lawyers who specialize in immigration and refugee work appeared at the terminal and sought his release.
“When the attorneys asked ‘Who is the person to talk to?’ the CBP agents responded, “Mr. President. Call Mr. Trump,’” court papers report.
Protesters had begun to arrive when Darweesh was finally freed at midday Saturday. He will need more time in this country before he will be able to appreciate fully the ironies. He did discern one clear truth.
“America is freedom!” he exulted. “America is freedom.”
Meanwhile, the lawyers worked to free a second Iraqi who had been detained at the airport. Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi is 39. His wife, Duniyya Alshawi had worked for a time as an accountant with a U.S. contractor.
“Due to the family’s association with the U.S. military, insurgents thought that they were collaborators,” court papers say. “In 2010, insurgents attempted to kidnap Ms. Alshawi’s brother. A month later, an IED placed on Mr. Alshawi’s sister-in-law’s car detonated, killing her husband and severely injuring her and her daughter.
Alshawi and his wife also fled Baghdad for Erbil. She successfully applied for refugee status and settled in Houston, Texas with their son. The family then applied for and received a visa for Alshawi.
“Mr. Alshawi arrived in at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City on January 27, 2017 at approximately 8:22 PM EST,” court papers say. “Upon arrival at the gate, Mr. Alshawi was blocked on the aircraft by CBP.”
The CPB officers then escorted Alshawi off the plane and detained him. Court papers say the attorneys who inquired about him got the same answer.
“Call Mr. Trump.”
As night fell, the number of demonstrators outside Terminal 4 swelled well past 1,000. Ever more arrived via the AirTrain serving JFK until it was barred to all but ticketed airline passengers. A Muslim woman drove up with a mini-van filled with little girls in hijabs so they could witness this passionate protest against bigotry.
“We should all wear hijabs,” a demonstrator named Nancy Cardozo told the woman.
Cardozo was rewarded with a hug. Cardozo also saw a young woman wearing a black niqab that covered everything but her eyes. The young woman videoed the protesters with a baby blue cellphone.
“This is beautiful!” the young woman exclaimed.
“You could see her eyes were happy,” Cardozo later said.
Outside Brooklyn federal court, another crowd chanted ”Set them free!” as lawyers sought in an emergency Saturday night hearing to convince Judge Ann Donnelly to do just that. Donnelly was reluctant just to order the detainees released, but she did rule that they could not simply be sent back to their point of origin.
At the end of a day when he managed to detain a Trump fan who had served America with great dedication and courage, our president had this to say:
“It's working out very nicely. You see it at the airports, you see it all over.”