On Saturday, a woman weâll call Maya fed her passport into the customs scanner at JFK airport. Maya is a legal permanent resident of the United States whoâs in the process of applying for citizenship. She, her American husband, Sami, and their two American children had just returned from a family trip to Saudi Arabia, where Maya was born.
But in Saudi Arabia, citizenship is based on your fatherâs citizenship, not where you were born. Since Mayaâs father was a Syrian citizen, she is, too â which means that even though she was born in Saudi Arabia, sheâs subject to President Donald Trumpâs executive order banning Syrians and people from six other majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. without special permission. In fact, she may have been subject to it even if she had never set foot in Syria. Trumpâs order appears to be based on nationality, not country of origin.
So when Maya scanned her Syrian passport at JFK on Saturday, the machine spat out a paper with a black âX,â which indicated she needed to report to a Customs and Border Patrol officer.
CBP agents questioned Maya about her past, about her marriage, and about the address she maintained when studying to be a pharmacist in Syria. They reviewed her social media accounts.
âI didnât know if my wife was going to be with me,â Sami told The Huffington Post. âI didnât know if my kids were going to have their mother.â HuffPost is withholding the familyâs last name â and identifying Maya and Sami by pseudonyms â so as not to endanger Mayaâs application for citizenship.
After three hours, CBP let Maya through. Maya and Sami credit an empathetic Customs and Border Patrol agent who, they say, seemed unsure about how the order handed down Friday afternoon should be applied. He eventually asked his supervisors for permission to let Maya go.
But the short-term detention and questioning of a legal permanent resident who wasnât even born in Syria offers an indication that the executive order Trump signed applies much more widely than he initially said.
The order is anything but precisely targeted. Its chaotic implementation Saturday left legal experts confused and Department of Homeland Security officials scrambling to explain who can now enter the country.
I didnât know if my wife was going to be with me. I didnât know if my kids were going to have their mother.
Sami, a man whose wife was stopped for questioning due to Friday's executive order
The order Trump signed bars the âimmigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of aliens fromâ seven Muslim-majority countries â Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and Libya. But that loose wording could encompass many people who donât live in those countries â including people who werenât even born there. In theory, itâs possible to be subject to the ban without ever having set foot in any one of the seven targeted countries.
The text of Trumpâs order bans people âfromâ the seven countries from entering the U.S. But the word âfromâ can have multiple legal meanings, said Stephen Legomsky, the former chief counsel to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. It could mean someone born in those countries, someone whose parents were born there, or someone who simply passed through, he said â although he noted the last interpretation is unlikely to gain traction.
âItâs terrible wording,â Legomsky told The Huffington Post. âThereâs a big difference between being a national of a country and being born in the country.â
The vagueness leaves it up to individual officers of Customs and Border Protection to decide how theyâll interpret the order until the Department of Homeland Security sets a policy in writing, Legomsky said.
DHS did not respond to a request for clarification.Â But State Department officials told The Wall Street Journal that people who hold dual citizenship with any of the seven countries cannot enter the U.S., which indicates the Trump administration is hewing toward a strict interpretation that could affect people well beyond the seven countriesâ borders.Â Legal permanent residents are also affected, though administration officials have said they will review decisions on a case-by-case basis. Trump advisers Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon pushed to apply the ban to legal residents over DHS officialsâ objections, CNN reported Saturday.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus offered a contradictory statement Sunday morning, saying in a televised interview that permanent residents wouldnât be barred. Without written guidelines, his comments only added to the uncertainty, as several judges issued rulings blocking the orderâs implementation.
Millions of people have left the seven countries targeted by the order over the last few decades. All seven have experienced war, civil conflict or political instability in the last 30 years, creating large-scale displacement.Â Other people have left for more mundane reasons that prompt people the world over to migrate â reuniting with family members who left before them, or searching for better economic opportunities.
That leaves open the possibility that those migrants and their children might face hurdles trying to enter the United States over the life of the ban, which lasts for 90 days for nationals of all seven countries. The order also suspends the U.S. refugee program for four months and bars refugees from Syria indefinitely.
Many migrants have made new homes in places that donât automatically confer birthright citizenship. Saudi Arabia has particularly strict rules that extend citizenship mostly to the children of its countryâs nationals. Although Maya and other children born to migrants may qualify as permanent residents, the Saudi government views most of them as foreign nationals who must look to their country of origin for passports.
Other countries that are home to large diasporasÂ in both the Middle East and Europe have similar, if less exacting, restrictions on birthright citizenship.
Likewise, many governments do not requireÂ applicants to returnÂ to the country of their ancestry when soliciting citizenship documents. So the dual citizenship restriction also leaves open the possibility that children of migrants from the seven countries might be denied entry from the United States, despite never physically passing through those countriesâ borders.
Putting the order into effect as the country went into a weekend only created chaos and confusion about whoâs covered by it, said David Leopold, an immigration attorney who spent Saturday afternoon trying to help a Saudi-born Sudanese national who was turned away from JFK due to the order.Â
âThey drop this order at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday,â Leopold told HuffPost. âEveryoneâs leaving the office. Lawyers are gone. Reporters are leaving for the weekend. But planes are coming into the country. Nobody had any notice whatsoever. Nobody knew this was going to apply to permanent residents.â
Like Legomsky, Leopold said the preposition âfromâ in Fridayâs executive order made it unclear who was excluded from the U.S. and who wasnât. âItâs sloppy,â he said. âI donât know what it means. ... But the object here is to keep Muslims out. They tricked permanent residents into being deported.â
That lack of legal analysis might have caused the confusion surrounding the scope of the order, said Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
âThis executive order is and can be expansive in ways that the administration is only now beginning to understand, much less the rest of us,â Noorani said. âItâs chaos.â
Sami is glad his familyâs ordeal is over, but seething at the prospect that Mayaâs parents canât visit his family and they canât go visit them. When he was in a bus from the terminal at his final destination, he overheard people saying that those upset about Trumpâs order should move on and get jobs.
âI have a job, Iâm a physician,â Sami said. âHow am I supposed to move on? This man [Trump] is trying to take away my wife.â
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