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Four Years Ago Today, Trump's 'Muslim Ban' Wreaked Havoc At LAX. Biden Has Rescinded It. What's Next?

Protesters hold signs during a demonstration at LAX on January 29, 2017, against the immigration ban that was imposed by President Donald Trump. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Within days of his January 2017 inauguration, former president Donald Trump signed an executive order that essentially barred nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days. He signed the order on a Friday, Jan. 27. By the following morning, chaos had set in at airports throughout the United States, including LAX.

  • Travelers with valid visas were detained.
  • Many were turned around in transit.
  • Families camped out for long hours in the Tom Bradley International Terminal, anxiously awaiting news of loved ones who'd been detained as they landed. Protests erupted outside and inside the terminal.
  • Volunteer lawyers set up tables to provide a makeshift legal clinic.

The "Muslim ban," as it became known, stalled the plans of countless people who had waited years to enter the U.S. lawfully as immigrants, or on temporary visas. Families were kept apart. The initial ban was blocked in court, but it was soon followed by another. And while parts of it were modified, along with the list of countries, it was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court.

Last week, President Joe Biden rescinded the ban with a new executive order his first day in office.

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What happens next? Our newsroom's local news and culture show, Take Two, which airs on 89.3 KPCC, tackled that question this week. Host A Martinez spoke with immigrant rights attorney Talia Inlender of the pro bono firm Public Counsel, who was at LAX that first day.


Take Two: Take us back to that day in 2017: How did you hear about the ban, and what do you remember thinking at the time?

Inlender: The ban came out on a Friday evening, and I actually am Shabbat observant, so my phone is usually off Friday nights through Saturday evening. So I learned about the ban through a wake-up from my wife early Saturday morning saying, "You know, I know your phone is off, but I think you should turn it on. There's some news from the Trump administration."

And so I learned a bit early, early Saturday morning, and immediately got in my car to my office and to the airport within the course of an hour or so, to see what help I could be.

Take Two: So set the scene for us at LAX back then, what was it like?

Inlender: So I was among the first attorneys on the ground, and as the day wore on hundreds, and eventually thousands of people would be on the ground. But early that morning, there were just a few of us, and many, many frantic family members, trying to understand what was happening to their loved ones, who were either stuck on planes or stuck on the other sides of customs, not knowing what was going to happen, if they were going to be allowed into the country, if they were going to be turned away. It was quite chaotic.

I think a lot of the officers and the folks working at the airlines also were quite confused that morning about what to do, and what was going to happen. So it was a chaotic scene.

Take Two: How would you say -- that chaos and that confusion -- do you think that was intentional in some way?

Inlender: Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, the goal of this ban was to keep as many people out as quickly as possible and to create confusion, absolutely. And it had that intended effect.

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Members of a coalition of immigration lawyers work on a sign informing families that they are their to help. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)


Take Two: Now, you set up a legal aid table at the Bradley International Terminal at LAX...tell us how you did that. And what kind of help were you offering right there, in that moment?

Inlender: Sure. So the first day, we didn't even have the benefit of a table, we were on the floor, in the Bradley Terminal, setting up sort of, you know -- just on the floor there, with family members. And we had to act really quickly. Because again, people were stuck on the other side of customs, some people were being threatened, and in fact, were put on planes that same morning to be returned to their home countries, despite having permission to lawfully enter the United States.

And so we needed to act immediately. So we were, you know, on the floor. Eventually, as days went on, we were at the tables, coordinating with our colleagues who were behind their desks at legal aid nonprofits and law firms across the city to file lawsuits to, you know, to stop the planes from taking off and eventually, when that didn't work, requiring the government to bring folks back.


Take Two: Even though that first ban was struck down, what sort of message did it send the world?

Inlender: I think it sent a clear message that this was going to be an administration and an America that was not going to be welcoming to outsiders. And that, of course, proved to be very true.

One really concrete memory I have from that first day is bringing a habeas petition, a court petition, that had been filed to stop the return of a man who was coming to unite with his family from Iran. And I said, you know, ..."We just filed this court petition...stop that plane."

And he (the officer) looked at me and he said, "This is America."

And I thought, well, this is not the America that I recognize. And I think that basic question of, you know, what America...what is our understanding of America? That has been the fundamental question these past four years, and that question is still being fought over today...sort of, whose America is it? What kind of vision do we have for this country?

And I think those questions, even with the ban being repealed by the Biden administration, I think that question is still very much at play today.

Protesters at LAX on January 28, 2017, after travelers arriving from seven Muslim-majority countries were detained at airports around the country following President Trump's travel ban. (Leslie Berestein Rojas/LAist)


Take Two also talked to Mina Mahdavi, a cybersecurity engineer in California, who has not been able to bring her mother from Iran to the U.S. because of the ban.

She told us:

"I'm very hopeful to see her again. I was ready for another four years of not being able to have my parents here. But this won't take back time, the time lost with my family, the time that my kid lost seeing his grandparents, and the time that they lost."

Note: Mahdavi spoke with Take Two in December about her failed efforts to bring her mother to the U.S. after the 2017 ban took effect, so that her mother could meet her new grandson. At the time, she shared this:
"I still watch other immigrant grandparents playing with their grandson or granddaughter in the park. They are visiting, they come and go, and they help the family that they are raising, the kids, and I don't have it. My kid is three-and-a-half, and he doesn't know my mom."


We asked Inlender what families such as Mina's should now expect with the change in administrations.

Inlender: I hope that that they don't lose another day, another week, you know, that those visas still have to be processed at the consulate. So, you know, we need to make sure that the folks at the consulates are doing their job to process those applications, to reach back to the ones that were wrongly rejected, and expedite those so that people can return as quickly and as safely to their loved ones as possible.

Take Two: What do you think this did to our standing in the world?

Inlender: I think it has been a really dark period for this country. We have been known, and at least put ourselves out there, as sort of a beacon of light, welcoming of strangers, the masses. And this was a very clear sign that, at least for this period, that is no longer who we are and what we stand for. I think we have a lot of work to do to repair the damage that has been done, and to do better than we did even before the ban.

What it really crystallized is that we are sort of in a fight for the soul of this country. Are we a country that welcomes refugees? Are we a country that seeks to be a beacon of light for the world? And I hope the answer to that is yes. But I think it's not just the legal changes that are going to make that happen. It is also coming together as a country and a diverse community, and saying "this is what we stand for, these are our values." So I think we have a lot of work to do to repair and heal, both internally and with the rest of the world.