An elderly Iraqi woman who was detained at Los Angeles International Airport under President Donald Trump’s travel ban last month said she was never interviewed by border officials during her 25-hour ordeal, but was told that she would be released if she handed over $160, according to her family and court documents.
Gishh Alsaeedi, 82, who reunited with her family on Jan. 29 after 19 years, had traveled to Southern California to visit her daughter in San Diego and son-in-law and to meet her grandchildren for the first time, said Alsaeedi’s granddaughter, Esma Al-garaawi, in a phone interview.
During her detention, Alsaeedi, who was on a tourist visa and speaks Arabic, became friendly with an Iranian couple who were also detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. When the couple was allowed to leave on the morning of Jan. 29, they asked if Alsaeedi could also be released, Al-garaawi said by phone based on her grandmother’s statements.
That’s when several officers in black uniforms allegedly told Alsaeedi in Arabic ‘if you want to leave with the Iranian couple, then you pay $160,” Al-garaawi said, as she translated her grandmother’s account. “She was fighting that. ‘I don’t have $160, what do you want me to do?’ They started raising their voice,” Al-garaawi said.
CBP said in an emailed statement that it “does not comment on any pending litigation.” Alsaeedi submitted a written declaration of her experience as part of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against Trump on behalf of LAX detainees after the travel restrictions went into effect late last month.
Questioned further about the allegations, Jaime Ruiz, a CBP spokesman, said in an email that “every single one is investigated and resolved.”
“Remember there are just allegations, nothing has been proven,” he said. Ruiz said there were “serious inaccuracies” but declined to elaborate, citing the pending litigation.
On Thursday, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to reinstate the ban on travelers from seven majority Muslim countries.
Trump’s immigration order, which was signed on Jan. 27, suspended resettlement of Syrian refugees indefinitely, suspended all other refugee resettlement for 120 days, and banned the entry of nationals from the seven countries — Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen — for a period of 90 days. Trump has said the executive order is necessary to keep terrorists out of the country.
Alsaeedi, who was released later that day, said that she was frightened when she was told she could pay money to be released since she didn’t have any. Her pulse started racing and she “began crying,” Al-garaawi said.
The story had a strong impact on the granddaughter as well.
“I couldn’t fathom that this was America, the land of the free, and that they were detaining her,” said Al-garaawi, an 18-year-old community college student. “I felt like I was living somewhere else, where there was a dictatorship.”
The allegation that border officials had asked the Iraqi grandmother for money for her release was referenced by Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrants’ rights for the ACLU of California, at a hearing held before a Los Angeles City Council committee Tuesday at City Hall.
CBP, in a statement earlier this week, said its officers “adhere to the highest standards of professionalism.”
“Every day CBP officers at LAX inspect and process nearly 30,000 or more international travelers,” the statement read. “We accomplish our mission with vigilance and in accordance with the law.”
CBP had not released any data regarding LAX detentions as of Thursday.
Pasquarella said that from Jan. 28 to Feb. 5, volunteer lawyers at LAX received contact concerning 329 individuals, most of whom had been detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In some cases, however, their families were simply waiting for them and asking for more information. Of those 329 individuals, 138 were Iranian, 92 were from countries outside the executive order, 150 were lawful permanent residents and 13 were on special immigrant visas for people who have assisted the U.S. military, she said.
When Al-garaawi learned of the federal appeals court refusal to reinstate the travel ban Thursday, she and her family were elated.
“I’m happy no one has to go through what I went through” with having a loved one detained, she said.
“Thank God,” Al-garaawi’s mother added.
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