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Immigration attorney: Sea-Tac detainees initially denied lawyers

When Jorge L. Barón heard about President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration on Friday, he knew he was in for a busy weekend.

Barón , executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Tacoma, admits now that he had no idea how busy.

Related: Hundreds gather at airport to protest Trump’s order

“None of us have had much sleep,” said Barón, who spent all of Saturday night at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport trying to secure the release of recent detainees. “I think it is going to stay incredibly busy.”

On Friday, Trump issued an executive order on immigration that banned Syrian refugees from entering the United States for an undisclosed period of time; and it barred refugee entry for three months. Citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – also can’t come to the U.S. for three months.

The announcement prompted a weekend of protests at Sea-Tac and other airports across the country while U.S. Customs officials struggled to figure how to apply the temporary ban. At Sea-Tac, up to a dozen people were detained under the new order — all with what has been legal paperwork a day earlier.

In Seattle, a legal team consisted of attorneys from Northwest Immigrant Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, MacDonald Hogue & Bayless and the Pacifica Law Group jumped into the fray. They filed a writ of habeas corpus to get a federal judge to halt the deportations on Saturday.

When U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly granted the order, the team of attorneys left for the airport to talk with customs officials. But by that point, several people had been refused entry and put back onto aircraft.

Barón and the legal team arrived at Sea-Tac at 1 p.m. Saturday — where they remained until 8:30 a.m. Sunday.

“We pulled an all-nighter,” Barón said.

There were two remaining people detained by U.S. Immigration but not deported because the federal court order. Immediately, the legal team ran into a problem: U.S. Customs didn’t want the detainees to have attorney access.

“That’s one of the things that’s been frustrating about this whole episode,” Barón said. “Customs and Border Protection generally has taken the position that for people who are in the situation of not being allowed into the country that they do not have the right to be in touch with an attorney.”

He said his group pushed “for a few hours” to get into the detention room with the men. After lengthy negotiations, customs officials got clearance from administration officials in Washington D.C. to allowed one attorney — Barón — to speak to the two men.

He said the men were frantic.

“They were confused,” Barón said. “They were scared they were told they were going to be put in jail. They felt very frustrated and upset. They expressed to me, ‘Hey we did everything right.’”

Both men were coming to the U.S. on visitor visas. One is originally from Sudan but has lived for the past 20 years in the United Arab Emirates. He is an engineer, Barón said, and was coming to the area for a conference.

“He’s been travelling to the U.S. for many years and never had a problem,” Barón said. “The only problem is that he was born in Sudan.”

The other man is a citizen of Yemen but lives in Saudi Arabia. He was coming to visit extended family in the Seattle area. He too had traveled extensively in the U.S. over many years. “He never has any problems until (Saturday),” Barón said.

And given the length of their flights, the men departed with one U.S. immigration standard and arrived to a very different one.

“They did not have any idea what was happening on the outside. The executive order was issued while they were in the air, on the plane, and so they had no idea that this was all changed,” Barón said.

Early Sunday, the team of lawyers made a breakthrough.

“We were able to make arguments with the customs officials to see if they would allow them to enter the United States and be released from custody. They talked to Washington and we got what we wanted.”

The two men were released at 6:15 a.m. Sunday.

Barón credited U.S. Representatives Pramila Jayapal and Susan DelBene, Sen. Patty Murray, and Gov. Jay Inslee for helping to convince U.S. Customs officials to allow the detainees access to counsel.

But not every detainee could be helped.

Barón said that minutes before lawyers arrived, customs officials detained and deported a Somali man who is married to a U.S. citizen.

He had the correct paperwork and visa and was arriving in the states to start the required Green Card process as the new spouse of an American citizen, Barón said. Mid-flight, the new executive order prompted officials to send him back overseas and away from his Seattle family and new wife.

“He has been issued a visa by the embassy and by the state department and all of the paperwork was correct,” Barón said. “The only thing that created a problem was the executive order.”

Lost in the shuffle over the executive order, Barón said, are the existing 1,500 detainees who were being held at the Northwest Detention Center prior to last week. Most don’t have legal representation.

“That’s been kind of forgotten with the crisis here at the airport,” he said. “But that need continues to be there.”

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