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Customs Didn't Bother To Show Up To City Council's Hearing On LAX Chaos

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Protests at Tom Bradley International Terminal on Sunday, January 29. (Photo by Julia Wick/LAist)
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On Tuesday, a City Council committee held a hearing to investigate the chaos at Los Angeles International Airport caused by President Trump's travel ban. Confusion reigned at LAX in the immediate aftermath of the executive order, which led to an indeterminate number of travelers detained for long periods of time, as well as thousands of protesters descending on the airport. Lawyers estimated that at least a hundred travelers were impacted by the ban during that first weekend alone.

The hearing was held during a meeting of the City Council's Innovation, Grants, Technology, Commerce, and Trade Committee in response to a motion sponsored by Councilmen Bob Blumenfield, Mike Bonin, and David Ryu. Council members sought to not only examine what had happened at LAX in the immediate aftermath of the ban, but to also look at how the city and airport could better respond if similar situations arise again in the uncertain landscape of Trump's America.

Blumenfield, who chairs the committee, said that the executive order has had "a significant impact not just on the nation but all Angelenos," because LAX is more than just an entry point to the country: it's "the front door to our city." The "lack of clarity from the federal government has left the city of Los Angeles with unanswered jurisdictional, legal, and logistical concerns," according to a statement issued by Blumenfield.

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From left, councilmen Paul Krekorian, Bob Blumenfield, Mike Bonin and Joe Buscaino and aides at Tuesday's committee hearing. (Photo by Julia Wick/LAist)
Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrant rights and a staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, and Patrick M. Gannon, deputy executive director of security and public safety for Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that runs LAX, appeared before the committee to answer questions. There was, however, a key player missing from the discussion: any representative from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

"We did invite them and they directed us to their website," Blumenfield said after noting their prominent absence. LAist reached out to CBP for comment but did not immediately hear back.

Gannon and airport police chief David L. Maggard went through a detailed presentation of the events immediately following the order, including the large-scale protests at LAX on January 27 and 28, and the airport's response. According to Gannon, the number of demonstrators was unprecedented in airport history. He praised the crowd for being overwhelmingly peaceful and cooperative. "With the exception of there just being a lot of people, it went very smoothly," said Gannon. He said that the cost of overtime security among airport police for the LAX protests was, at current estimate, between $150,000 to $175,000, not counting the LAPD deployment. Blumenfield raised the possibility of billing the federal government for those costs, though it remains unclear if that is actually feasible.

Here's a slide from Gannon's presentation that offers a day-by-day breakdown of the protests:

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(Courtesy of Los Angeles World Airports)
According to Gannon, the protests caused a number of impacts to airport operations on Sunday, January 29, including 26 international flight delays and 17 domestic flight delays. No flights were cancelled as a result of the protests.

Council members on the committee questioned Gannon about his ability to interface with CBP, and what recourse the city would have—if any—if similar situations arise in the future. Gannon made it clear that because CBP is a federal entity operating apart from the city-controlled airport, customs can completely restrict access to their areas of operation, which are technically considered part of the U.S. border.

Any official information from CBP about the number of detainees—both during that initial weekend as well as the two weeks that followed, wherein a patchwork of court stays were complied with to various degrees—remains MIA. The ACLU's Jennie Pasquarella detailed the information tabulated by volunteer lawyers, though she stressed that their numbers were undoubtedly short, as they only include the individuals and families who self-identified to the lawyers. According to Pasquarella, there were 329 individuals who contacted volunteer lawyers asking for assistance between January 28 and February 5. Of those 329 individuals, 150 were legal permanent residents (i.e. green card holders). One hundred and thirty-eight were Iranian, and 92 were from countries not included on the White House's seven country list. Pasquarella also said that 13 were traveling on Special Immigrant Visas, which are specifically granted to individuals who have assisted the U.S. military or government abroad (typically Iraqis and Afghans).

The average length of detention (again, based solely on the interviews the volunteer lawyers were able to conduct as people came out of customs) was 10 hours on the first day after the ban (Saturday, January 28) and three hours the following day, though many people were also detained far longer than three hours on that Sunday. A day later, the average length of detention rose to seven hours, which, as Pasquarella noted, illustrated how much things were fluctuating. Averages were around five hours for the next few days, and have "increasingly gone down as stays have been put in place."

Pasquerella also praised airport staff for going out of their way to accommodate the small army of volunteer lawyers, including ensuring there was space for people to work, as well as facilitating space for things to be stored overnight.

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From left, Sara Yarjani and the ACLU's Jennie Pasquerella at Tuesday's committee hearing. (Photo by Julia Wick/LAist)
Sara Yarjani, an Iranian citizen and post-graduate student who returned to LAX on Sunday after being deported under the ban, gave harrowing testimony about her 23 hour detention at LAX, describing extremely fearful, uncomfortable conditions with little access to food or information. Both Pasquerella and Yarjani also spoke about how CBP officials pressured detainees to sign documents waiving their legal right to enter and remain in the United States.

"I'm appalled by the way you were treated and I'm sorry for that on behalf of the government, even though we don't represent the federal government. It's awful and not the way it should be," Councilman Blumenfield said after she finished speaking. He also noted that, after hearing Yarjani's testimony, he realized that what had happened at LAX was "much worse than I, or probably any of us here, imagined the situation [to be]."

Councilman Bonin raised questions about whether or not the Red Cross could be deployed to enter CBP detention areas if a similar situation occurs again. "I'm a little surprised I'm even asking this question," he said.

Pasquarella said that she hadn't previously thought about the question and added that it was one she never imagined she'd have to ask. However, according to Pasquarella, under international humanitarian law, these kinds of situations could qualify as arbitrary detentions, potentially putting them under the purview of the Red Cross. The City Council committee ultimately decided to recommend that the airport look into ways to engage the Red Cross in the future. Their motion, which still needs to be adopted by the full council, also recommends that the airport look into a number of avenues of preparation for similar situations that might arise, including ways to provide food and water to detainees in CBP custody, as well as access to counsel. The motion also recommended the establishment of protocol that would give airport officials the ability to inspect CBP holding areas.