Two Syrian families who arrived at Philadelphia International Airport Saturday morning from Doha, Qatar, were briefly detained and then sent back on a return 18-hour flight to the Middle East, according to a family member from Allentown, Pennsylvania.
The families, made of up two brothers, their wives and two children, were detained by Customs and Border Protection officials after disembarking a Qatar Airways flight at 7:25 a.m., according to Joseph Assali, of Allentown.
Three hours later, the six were put back on a Qatar Airways flight to Doha, Assali said.
"This is like a nightmare come true," he said, adding that they had visas and green cards legally obtained months ago.
"They're all Christian citizens and the executive order was supposed to protect Christians fleeing persecution," he said.
The families were detained and deported through an executive order signed Friday evening by President Donald Trump that immediately put restrictions on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries and temporarily halted a refugee program for Syrian immigrants.
An immigration lawyer tried to obtain more information from federal officials at the airport, Assali said, but it appeared too late. Officials would not discuss any details with Assali's family, who all live in the Allentown area.
"We don't know what exactly is happening," he said before finding out they were back in the air headed to Qatar. "We can't contact them."
He said the two families, who are from Damascus, hoped to use their time in America to obtain citizenship.
"They came as legal immigrants and were going to try sorting things out while they're here," Assali said.
Messages left for airport officials as well as Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security were not returned Saturday morning or early afternoon.
Trump said in signing the order that he pledged to "keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America." He did, however, declare that Christians in Syria and other restricted-status counties would be given preference.
Syria was the only country he named Friday, but the order suspended entry for 90 days from countries linked to a statute in the Visa Waiver Program. Besides Syria, those countries are: Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.
Two Iraqis were detained at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City earlier Saturday as well, but reports indicated that the two men were able to secure legal representation before Customs agents deported them. One of the men has been released.
Within hours, pro-immigrant demonstrations erupted at the airport.
An attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania told NBC10 that she was reaching out to the Assali family to get more details.
The attorney, Molly Tack-Hooper, said her organization would try to file a writ of habeas corpus on the detained family's behalf. The writ would require authorities to bring the detainees before a judge before deportation.
Upon learning that federal authorities may have already deported the families, she said she would still reach out to the Assali family in Allentown.
"It's fuzzy what we could do if they're already on a flight back to Qatar," she said.
Hooper also told NBC10 the ACLU was working with the HIAS and other civil rights attorneys to try and help at least five other immigrants who are currently being detained at Philly International Airport.
Late Saturday night, hours after Assali's family left Philadelphia, a federal judge granted an injunction in response to a request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other legal organizations on behalf of individuals subject to President Trump's ban.
The stay blocks anyone with a valid visa being held at airports from being deported. However, the stay only applies to those currently within the U.S., but not to anyone who tries to come to the U.S. going forward. It also does not mean detainees will be released, only that they can't be deported, according to ACLU attorneys.
Joseph Assali told NBC10 his family members are still on their flight and unaware of the injunction being granted. He said he's been advised to let them know as soon as they land and to urge them to try and fly back to the United States as soon as possible.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, Mayor Jim Kenney, U.S. Rep Bob Brady and Senator Bob Casey joined 150 protesters at the airport Saturday night to intervene on behalf of the detained immigrants.
"By several accounts, these families waited months to obtain the proper documentation so they could come to our country legally," Kenney said in a released statement. "And still, they were sent back to a war-torn nation that has used chemical warfare against its own people. The Trump administration very well may have just given these families a death sentence."
Around 1600 people are expected to gather at Philly International Airport Sunday for a second protest starting at 2 p.m.