Despite heavy secrecy, portraits emerging of those detained at LAX under Trump order

After a trip to Turkey to visit her ailing father, Mayasah Witwit returned to Los Angeles International Airport, eager to reunite with her husband and four children.

Witwit and her family have made their home in Westminster since fleeing Iraq last year as refugees. The adjustment has been made more difficult by her battle with advanced-stage breast cancer.

But as she made her way through LAX on Sunday, customs officials stopped her and placed her in a “special room,” where she waited with 20 to 30 others. 

“You are from Iraq,” the customs officers told Witwit. “You can’t enter.”

Since President Trump’s sweeping travel restrictions were imposed Friday, temporarily halting those from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S., dozens of others like Witwit have stepped off planes in Southern California and found themselves facing federal immigration authorities.

At LAX, they were forced to wait, sometimes for more than 24 hours: an Iraqi grandmother seeing her daughter for the first time in nearly two decades. A 78-year-old Iranian woman visiting nine of her children, all U.S. citizens. A Syrian-born businessman who planned to tour farms with co-workers.

The process has been marked by secrecy, and untold numbers have been deported. Outraged protesters converged at LAX and other airports all weekend, and a crowd of demonstrators returned there Monday to renounce Trump’s order.

It’s difficult to tabulate the number of those who were held in LAX and for how long, and harder still to determine how many were deported. Federal officials have not provided statistics on those held or deported, despite repeated requests.

Some, such as Sara Yarjani, were pressured to void their visas, an allegation echoed by immigration attorneys.

Yarjani was held for 20 hours at LAX and told that unless she voided her student visa, she would be deported and face a five-year ban from reentering the U.S., according to a statement issued by her and a professor at California Institute for Human Science, where she is enrolled.

She signed the withdrawal papers, and only then was she allowed to use a phone, said the professor, Ji Hyang Padma. Next, she was ushered by armed officers to a plane bound for Oslo, Norway, and eventually arrived in Austria, where her family lives. 

“As one professor said, Sara is no more a terrorist than the gold fish in our office. She’s spiritually oriented and nice to be around,” said Padma, who directs the comparative religions program at the Encinitas-based institute. “She simply wants to go back to school.”

As of Sunday night, U.S. Customs and Border Protection had processed all cases of individuals initially affected by Trump’s order at airports around the nation, according to Gillian Christensen, acting spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security. Christensen, however, said in an email that she was unsure whether additional travelers were being processed on Monday.

Officials have clarified that green-card holders from the affected countries would face additional checks when returning from trips abroad, but suggested they would not be denied entry unless a problem arose. 

Areej Ali, a green-card holder, experienced the additional scrutiny firsthand Monday, when she returned to California from her native Sudan. 

Ali, 33, had boarded a plane in Khartoum on Sunday and was detained in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, after a connecting flight. Her sister said she was nearly sent back to Sudan.

If not for a letter sent to the airline Ali was traveling on by a lawyer that her family had hired Sunday — a letter that explained Ali should be cleared for entry — Ali wouldn't have been released from Saudi Arabia, her family said. 

The missive had news releases attached to it stating that the ban did not apply to green-card holders.

“We were desperate as they were threatening to deport her in less than four hours,” said attorney Courtney Black, adding that she had also prepared a court petition on Ali’s behalf.

After Ali arrived, she texted her sister that she was being held for questioning. After about 90 minutes, Ali emerged from the terminal and instantly fell into an embrace with her family.

“Never in a million years did I imagine something like this would happen,” said Ali, a software developer. She said part of her trip to Sudan was to obtain a Sudanese passport as part of the process to gain her U.S. citizenship. “This is home for me.”

The branch of the American Civil Liberties Union in Southern California had filed court papers calling for some detainees to be released.

Among them were Khanon Azad, 78, who arrived Saturday afternoon from Iran and was initially pressured to sign papers withdrawing her application to get into the U.S., according to court papers.

Gishh Alsaeedi, 82, was detained for hours after traveling from Baghdad. She had never met any of her six grandchildren who live here and had not seen her daughter in 19 years, according to court papers.

Both women, along with about five others, were eventually let go, according to the ACLU. 

For Witwit, the Iraqi refugee, the time in limbo made her wonder whether she’d see her children again. She was offered water and the chance to use the restroom, but unable to take medication for her breast cancer. It was stored in her luggage.

Immigration lawyers caught wind of her medical needs and a lawyer began reaching out to Customs and Border Protection officials. Eventually, after about six hours, she was released. 

Her family is still not sure why she was allowed to leave — the officers didn’t clearly explain, they said. After she got out of the room, Witwit said, her voice breaking, she went straight to her children and hugged them.

Twitter: @MayaLau

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

Twitter: @MattHjourno

Times staff writer Brittny Mejia contributed to this report.

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