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Family Denied Resolution to Return to Pennsylvania From Syria, Lawyers File Lawsuit in Federal Court

UPDATE: Attorneys representing the Assali family filed suit in federal court Tuesday. New details here.

A Lehigh Valley family was denied a resolution that would bring them back to Allentown from Damascus, Syria, where they were ordered to return after briefly landing at the Philadelphia International Airport Saturday morning.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection rejected the resolution Monday, said Joseph Hohenstein, an attorney for the Assali family. Lawyers from the ACLU of Pennsylvania, HIAS Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association will file a federal lawsuit Tuesday morning on behalf of the families.

"There is a history of the U.S. government acknowledging mistakes and errors after they have removed people and assisted in their return,"  Hohenstein said. "When it hasn’t done its job right, they’re willing to fix it. That’s what we’re asking them to do here."

The families were detained and deported through an executive order signed Friday evening by President Donald Trump that immediately restricted travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries and temporarily halted a refugee program for Syrian immigrants.

Six members of the Assali family - comprising of 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. Saturday, hours before a Brooklyn federal judge issued a stay on deportations initiated under Trump’s executive order.

As a result, the six relatives were forced onto an 18-hour flight to Doha and are currently in Damascus, said relative Joseph Assali from Allentown. One of his relatives experienced heart problems on the flight and was given oxygen.

“It was probably from the stress,” he said. “The hardest part is getting through a war zone to cross one border to make it to another country and then fly into America only to find out the laws changed while you were in the air.”

A crowdfunding campaign has been created on behalf of the family, which liquidated its assets in order to pay for visas, security screenings and other legal documents that were issued before their planned departure to the U.S.

“This poor family sold everything and used those funds for this trip and now that’s gone,” Hohenstein said. “If they ever make it here they will be coming with not a penny to their names.”

The Assalis initiated their immigration attempts in 2003 while living in Syria. In December 2016, they were approved to join relatives in Allentown, including Joseph’s father and mother who have been in the United States for more than 20 years. Dr. Ghassan Assali has a dentistry practice and received his degree from New York University.

The family decided to postpone their move to Pennsylvania until January in order to spend Christmas with their family in Syria. When they landed, their passports and visas were revoked and canceled.

On Sunday, Dr. Ghassan Assali appeared alongside Gov. Tom Wolf decrying Trump’s executive order.

"America is not America," Dr. Ghassan Assali said. "Like ISIS now, they ask, 'Are you Christian? What do you believe?' And if they are not saying what they believe, they kick you out and they cut your head off. So America, same thing. They ask you are you Muslim? You've got to change your religion. Thank you."

Dr. Ghassan Assali and his family live in a well-established Syrian and Lebanese community in Allentown that dates back more than 100 years, Hohenstein said. The community is predominately Christian and houses several churches. Dr. Ghassan Assali's son, Joseph, is a sophomore at Temple University studying biology and Spanish.

The Assalis "were legal American immigrants to the point where the U.S. embassy in Syria shook hands and congratulated them,” Grode said. “All that remained was to fly and get here.”

During an interview with NBC Nightly News, Dr. Ghassan Assali and his wife Sarmad Assali admitted that they had both voted for Donald Trump.

"I understand he wants to make America safe," Sarmad Assali said. "We're all on with this. I definitely want to be in a safe place. But people need us and we need to be there for them."

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