An Airport Protest in Support of Religious Freedom

Fury over the Trump administration’s immigrant ban found purpose after travelers from abroad were detained at U.S. airports.

Stephen Yang / Reuters

It was already shaping up to be a strange day when New York Representatives Jarrold Nadler and Nydia Velázquez arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport shortly after 11 on Saturday morning with no plans to take a flight.

“I was preparing to go to synagogue this morning and I got a call about this,” said Nadler, who represents New York’s 10th district in Manhattan and Brooklyn, while leaning back in an unforgiving airport chair. “And so I came.”

Religion turned out to be a recurring theme. Like many others, Nadler and Velázquez awoke to the news that President Trump’s controversial executive order on immigration, which was signed on Friday afternoon, had already ensnared several passengers traveling to the U.S. from one of the seven Muslim-majority countries included in the order. One of those passengers was Hameed Khalid Darweesh, an Iraqi interpreter who risked his life to work with the U.S. government in Iraq for over a decade. Darweesh had been in the air when the president signed the immigration ban and was detained by Customs and Border Protection agents upon landing. As Nadler and Velázquez pushed for his release, word spread about Darweesh and several other passengers who were being held at the airport.

By noon, several dozen New Yorkers had gathered outside JFK’s Terminal 4 in an impromptu protest that emerged on social media through the hashtag nobannowall. Darweesh, whose release had been secured after 19 hours, appeared and gave a brief speech before departing. “This is humanity, this is the soul of America, this is what pushed me to leave my country and move here,’’ he said of the crowd. Meanwhile, young immigration lawyers fanned out across the terminals, offering their help to new arrivals and the families of travelers affected by the executive order.

By 3 p.m., a few hundred protesters stood with New Colossus-themed placards, braving near-freezing temperatures and a harsh Queens wind. “People have just been pouring in,” said Daniel Altschuler of Make the Road NY, an immigrant advocacy organization. “What started as five quickly became 50 is now 500.” As cars passing by beeped enthusiastically and the crowd chanted “let them in,” news of similar demonstrations underway at O’Hare, Dulles, SFO, and Logan began to circulate among the crowd.

Where last week’s national rallies revolved largely around gender equality, Saturday’s protest in New York was spurred on by immigration and religious tolerance, a battle waged at an airport whose namesake battled religious biases of an earlier era. Several signs referenced the ill-fated voyage of the MS St. Louis, whose predominantly Jewish passengers were denied entry to the United States in 1939 while fleeing the Nazis and many of whom were later murdered back in Europe.

At sundown, a havdalah ceremony, which marks the end of the Jewish Sabbath, was led by the descendants of Holocaust survivors and refugees. Delegations from local Catholic and Unitarian groups and congregations joined nearby. By then, the crowd had swelled to over a thousand, sprawling out onto the sidewalks outside the terminal and filling levels of an open-air parking garage. A speaker instructed the crowd to head to Brooklyn where an emergency hearing at the federal courthouse would be held and an injunction would later be issued against the president’s executive order. It was only a temporary salve. Another protest was set for Sunday.