Last week, the Supreme Court decided to allow President Donald Trump’s third travel ban to go into effect while multiple challenges work their way through the courts. A lower court had previously issued an injunction against the revised executive order, issued September 24, which restricts travel from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Chad, North Korea, and Venezuela.
In February, protests erupted at O’Hare airport after the president signed his first order, which at the time banned travelers from seven Muslim-majority nations (the administration has re-issued the ban several times after several courts ruled that previous iterations were unlawful). More than 300 Chicago lawyers banded together, providing legal assistance to affected travelers.
Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) Chicago was at the center of the organizing effort. We caught up with deputy director Sufyan Sohel to understand what the Supreme Court's latest decision means for travelers and for the volunteer lawyers who are still helping people entering the country through Chicago.
What does the Supreme Court order mean for travelers?
The third iteration of Trump's travel ban was supposed to take effect on October 18, but the lower courts put a hold on the executive order. What the Supreme Court decision did was basically say, the travel ban is in effect.
However, there are still questions about the day of implementation. For those countries on the ban, when is the cutoff for accepted visas? If I got my visa December 1, am I still eligible to fly to the U.S.? Or, did I have to get my visa before October 18? I think we'll see some problems with implementation and probably some arbitrariness in how its implemented.
Are people being stopped at O'Hare now?
What we are hearing through our channels is that anyone given a visa after December 4 from the aforementioned countries will not be allowed in. This also means that people will not be getting visas from the consulates in their home countries moving forward. We haven't really seen an increase of reported cases of people being denied entry just yet, but we have seen an increase in community members and travelers calling to make sure it's OK to fly.
How many calls have you received following the announcement?
We've been getting calls left and right since we heard of the Supreme Court order. About 50 people have contacted the CAIR Chicago office via email or phone, or emailed the Travel Assistance Program through our online portal in the three days following the announcement. Before the Supreme Court order, we were receiving a handful of questions.
If we go back to January when the first executive order was issued, we were getting about a hundred calls a week. Those calls decreased as the courts issued new rulings on how it could be enforced. People started to understand. But what these bans are doing is creating so much confusion and fear among communities. While the Muslim population is feeling the brunt of it, we have been seeing people from Mexico, Africa, and India, as well as people of all faiths and backgrounds being denied entry into the U.S.
Given the chaos that ensued when the initial travel ban was enacted, do you foresee similar chaos due to this Supreme Court ruling?
One of the good things that we've been able to do is build a cordial working relationship with the Department of Homeland Security, the airport, and customs staff. They can tell us what the implementation's going to look like and what dates they are going to take effect, but a lot of them have yet to receive that information from their higher-ups. So, we just don't have as much information as we would like at this point.
If anyone is traveling from these nations, is there anything they should know ahead of time?
First and foremost, you always travel at your own risk. People fail to sometimes remember that a visa is not guaranteed entry. It's basically a permission to knock. That applies to people entering the U.S. and for us visiting other countries. Unless you’re a citizen or a green card holder, it’s at the discretion of the customs agent, more or less, as to who gets to come in for what reason or not.
Second,we are seeing a second visa interview being done at the airport. We encourage people to bring any and all documents used to get their visa, so they can prove why they are here. The main reason people are getting denied entry is they may have misrepresented the reasons they are coming to the U.S. They say they are coming for tourist purposes but signed up for a class. That's cause for an immediate denial of entry. They don’t want to see people overstay their visa. We see this a lot from families from South Asia and Latin America. They come on a tourist visa and they tend to overstay or stick around. One of [the administration's] goals is to try to limit that.
What kind of impact have these travel bans had on travelers?
We are seeing fear, we are seeing confusion, we're seeing anger. We've had citizens calling in, saying: “I heard this person wasn't allowed in.” I have to remind them that as a citizen you have every right to re-enter this country.
We have a big statue that represents freedom that says give us your poor, your weak, your ill. Now, we're saying, you can't come here. People suffering the most are refugees. There's a halt on refugees coming into this country. Even after a two-year vetting process that includes background checks, applications, interviews, they are told, "Sorry, you can't come in yet." That's really problematic, and it goes against what America stands for and represents.