A Pennsylvania family fighting to have their relatives return to the United States after they were detained at Philadelphia International Airport and sent back overseas under the immigration order told "NBC Nightly News" that they supported Donald Trump for president.
“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."
Assali and her husband, Dr. Ghassan Assali, who has a dentistry practice and received his degree from New York University, are originally from Syria but have been living in the United States for more than 20 years.
Assali's two brothers, their wives and their two children initiated their immigration attempts in 2003 while living in Syria. In December 2016, they were approved to join Assali and her husband in Allentown after the couple bought and furnished a home for them.
But early Saturday morning, after they landed at Philadelphia International Airport, Assali's relatives were detained. They were then sent on an 18-hour flight back overseas.
The detainment and deportation occurred only hours after the president signed an executive order that immediately restricted travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, temporarily halted the refugee program and indefinitely blocked refugees from Syria.
"Two security guards were waiting for them," Assali said. "They took them. They said, 'Are you Syrians?' They said, 'Yes.' They said, 'Come with us.'"
Assali's relatives, who are all Orthodox Christians, had visas and proof of green cards. The six Syrians were told they had to go back on the next flight and return to the Middle East, according to Assali. The next day, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus announced that the order would not extend to green card holders.
They went on an 18-hour flight back to Doha and are currently in Damascus, according to the Assali family. One of Assali's relatives has heart problems and was given oxygen.
Tawfik Assali, the 21-year-old son of one of the deported Syrians, told NBC News he came to the United States three years ago and was waiting for his mother to join him.
"I was one hour away from hugging her," he said. "Seeing her."
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Hours after the six Syrians were sent back home, a federal judge granted an injunction on the order in response to a request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other legal organizations. While the stay blocks anyone with a valid visa who is being held at airports from being deported, it only applies to those currently within the U.S., not anyone who tries to come to the U.S. going forward.
The six Syrians remain in Damascus. Joseph Hohenstein, an attorney for the Assali family, told NBC10 Monday they were denied a resolution that would bring them back to Allentown. Lawyers from the ACLU of Pennsylvania, HIAS Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of the families.
A crowdfunding campaign has been created for 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,” said Joseph Hohenstein, an attorney who is helping on the case. “If they ever make it here they will be coming with not a penny to their names.”
On Sunday, Ghassan Assali appeared alongside Gov. Tom Wolf decrying Trump’s executive order.
"America is not America," 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." [[412059543, C]]
His son, Joseph, is a sophomore at Temple University studying biology and Spanish. The family lives 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.
Despite what happened to the Assalis, not everyone in their community disagrees with Trump. NBC News spoke with Rev. Anthony Sabbagh, an immigrant who voted for Trump partly because of his promise to make national security a top priority.
"I admire a president that protects his people and tries to make America safe," Sabbagh said.
In her interview with NBC News, Sarmad Assali had a question for Trump.
"Why?" she asked. "Where is your human side to send somebody to a war zone?"
Editor's Note: A conversation on Wednesday with an attorney for the Assali family clarified they did not vote for President Donald Trump, although they could legally vote and did support him.