Thousands of people gathered in and around Battery Park in downtown Manhattan on a chilly Sunday afternoon in protest of President Donald Trump's executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.
“My family is Iranian-American. I wouldn’t even have been born if my dad had tried to come over today rather than in the '70s," said Amenee Siahpush, 33, whose father moved to the United States from Iran when he was 17 years old. "I think it’s heartbreaking, it’s unfair, and it’s motivation to be here."
New York's was one of at least two dozen other protests against the ban underway around the country on Sunday afternoon. According to Make The Road NY, who helped organize the event, an estimated 30,000 people turned out in New York City alone.
With the Statue of Liberty in the background, the crowd heard a lineup of speakers that included New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio–who reiterated that the city will resist any federal attempts to deport its citizens–and Syrian activist Loubna Mrie, who recounted her journey to the U.S. and what it meant to be granted asylum. Others in the crowd shared their families' immigrant stories with me as we watched on.
"My mom came here during the dictatorship of [Haitian President François] Duvalier's son. I understand why people are moving to give their children a better life," said Nancy, a paralegal who works in downtown Manhattan and didn't want to give her last name. "We don't get to say no to specific people. Yes we want to be safe, and we want Americans to be safe everywhere, but there's a right way to do that and there's a wrong way to do that."
The ban targets citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen–even if they're also American permanent residents. On Saturday, the Department of Homeland Security clarified that American green card holders originally from those countries are included in the order, preventing people who have lived in the U.S. for years and were away on holidays or business trips from returning home.
To add to an already confusing and uneven implementation of the sweeping executive order, Rein Preibus, White House Chief of Staff, told reporters Sunday that green card holders would not be targeted, but that border agents have "discretionary authority" to detain any traveler they deem suspicious from the seven listed countries.
That's cause for continued concern for Rokeya Akhter, 53, who came to the U.S. 22 years ago from Bangladesh. Her mother, a green card holder, is faced—along with so many legal green card holders—with the dark reality of not knowing whether she'll be able to return to the country from Bangladesh, where she is currently.
"It makes me feel angry, especially what happened at JFK. Honestly I couldn't sleep all night thinking about it," Akhter told me.
Akhter, a single mother when she moved, told me she came to the U.S. because she felt it was a place where she and her daughter could be safe and thrive.
"That's why I came to this country, I knew as a woman I had my power. As a woman, I knew that I could survive, and that I could raise my daughter as a single mother. And I did raise my daughter as a single mother," she told me. "But now I feel the ways that women are being harassed, being bullied, this is not acceptable. Especially for this country. My dream for this country was beautiful but I feel like we're falling apart as a nation. This is my feeling, it hurts. It's very painful."
A little farther away from the main crowd, Sarah, 37, from Queens, who also declined to give her last name, watched her three-year-old son play on a bronze statue called The Immigrants, which depicts people from diverse backgrounds who found sanctuary in the U.S. over the decades.
"I thought about my Jewish ancestors that were shut out during the Holocaust and I felt despair that we have this idea that progress moves forward but we're in fact moving back to one of the most shameful periods of our history," she told me.
A temporary stay granted by a federal judge in Brooklyn late Saturday night provides a reprieve for, by the American Civil Liberties Union's estimate, hundreds of people who were being held at airports around the country. But the stay does not completely overturn the order, and only applies to those already in the country. The stay remains in place until another hearing, on Feb. 21.
National Immigration Law Center staff attorney Nicholas Espiritu, one of the lawyers for the two Iraqi men detained at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport that filed the lawsuit Saturday, said the NILC is working with community groups and individuals whose family are directly impacted by the order to explore other legal actions to protect residents and visa holders who are currently overseas and not covered by the Brooklyn court's hold.
"This current stay only extends to folks who are being detained and who have arrived," Espiritu told me. "But as folks know the ban is much broader than that and is seriously effecting families across the country, who have loved ones stuck overseas, refugees who are already slated after years of work and vetting to come and its putting in place potentially permanent bans on individuals from Syria from ever coming."
He said he's hopeful that their current lawsuit, as it develops, could challenge and potentially overturn many of the fundamentals of the executive order.
Meanwhile, reports from lawyers and advocates Saturday night and Sunday morning suggest that Customs and Border Protection agents at Dulles International Airport in Dallas and JFK may be defying the judge's orders:
The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday. The department, however, did release a statement on Sunday morning pledging to enforce Trump's orders:
The Department of Homeland Security will continue to enforce all of President Trump’s Executive Orders in a manner that ensures the safety and security of the American people. President Trump’s Executive Orders remain in place—prohibited travel will remain prohibited, and the U.S. government retains its right to revoke visas at any time if required for national security or public safety. President Trump’s Executive Order affects a minor portion of international travelers, and is a first step towards reestablishing control over America's borders and national security.
But the statement also says that the department "will comply with judicial orders."
Espiritu told me that the federal government appears to be releasing some people and keeping others in detention, with the criteria for making those decisions unclear.
John La Berbera, 31, an international student advisor at New York University, was in the crowd holding a sign that read, "Let my students in!"
He said that under the order, two Iranian students he works with are being prevented from entering the country to complete their studies. One is in the final semester of her doctorate but can't travel back to the U.S. from Iran. Another is being held at JFK, he said, and last he heard has not had access to lawyers.
"I can't say enough about the value that they bring. They definitely benefit our domestic students, as far as contributing to the learning process, and they contribute to society when they're given work authorization," he said. "I would thank them for enriching my life."
It's been two days since President Trump signed the executive order, which also includes a total ban on all refugees entering the U.S. for 120 days and Syrian refugees indefinitely. The 24 hours following the order's signing Friday afternoon unleashed chaotic scenes at major airports around the nation, with pro-bono lawyers flocking to offer their services and protesters taking over terminals and blocking traffic.
Sunday afternoon, as demonstrators filled the streets of downtown Manhattan, the lawyers who rushed to airports yesterday were determined to pursue every avenue to get the order overturned entirely.
That could mean adding more to the current lawsuit, or filing other separate lawsuits, Espiritu said. For a start, he said he thinks the current stay that protects people already in the country is on solid legal ground to be upheld.
"Everything we have seen from this administration in terms of their failure to follow due process, in terms of their anti-Muslim rhetoric and the lack of process they’ve put into creating this executive order, makes us believe we have a good legal argument," he said.