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UD students at center of immigration debate

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On Saturday, University of Delaware student Farzaneh Ahmadi Darani and Fatemeh Sheikhi were only steps away at Philadelphia International Airport. However, Sheikhi was sent back to Iran due to the president’s executive travel ban. 2/1/17 Suchat Pederson & Damian Giletto/The News Journal

She brought a bouquet of pink roses and a joyful heart.

Her mother, who had traveled for two grueling days from Iran to Philadelphia, brought a gold necklace with the silhouette of a girl who had long hair like her daughter’s.

On Saturday morning, University of Delaware doctoral student Farzaneh Ahmadi Darani and retired educator Fatemeh Sheikhi were only steps away at Philadelphia International Airport after nearly two years apart.

Yet they were unable to see, talk or embrace each other; a tearful airline attendant handled the exchange of gifts.

“I couldn’t tolerate that pain,” Darani, 28, recalled. “They treated her like a deported person.”

After being detained for two hours in our nation’s birthplace, Sheikhi, a 56-year-old Iranian whose visa was valid when she boarded her plane Thursday, was told to go back to where she came from. While mom was in the air, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran.

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, joined by a dozen immigrants’ rights lawyers, announced that it would file lawsuits on behalf of Sheikhi and six Syrian relatives of the Assali family in Allentown, Pennsylvania, who were also sent back to the Middle East on Saturday after being detained at the Philadelphia airport.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney attended the ACLU press conference Tuesday at his reception room in City Hall, surrounded by portraits of mostly white men — all former city mayors.

A descendant of Irish immigrants, Kenney said the speed with which the immigration changes were implemented, amid widespread confusion, was an “unconscionable, cold and callous act.”

Sheikhi’s lawsuit is expected to be filed in federal court in Philadelphia in the coming days; the Assalis’ lawsuit was filed Tuesday against Trump, the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection. The complaint alleges that Trump’s executive order violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by giving preferential treatment to one religion over another and flouts the equal protection guarantee embodied in the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Back in 2003, years before the Syrian Civil War, Ghassan Assali started the process of bringing his two brothers and their families to the U.S. The Allentown dentist and his U.S.-based family purchased a home nearby for the brothers, Syrian Christians who sold most of their belongings to begin anew.

After being approved for their visas in September, the brothers and their families traveled a full day from Damascus to Philadelphia only to be detained, denied an interpreter and access to an attorney, and put on a flight back home, according to lawyers with the ACLU, HIAS Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association who are representing the family.

“How they sent them back so quickly was just heartbreaking,” said Ghassan Assali’s wife, Sarmad, who has lived in the U.S. for more than two decades and has a brother who served in the U.S. Army.

The Assalis’ lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to immediately reinstate the revoked visas of their relatives and arrange for transport from Damascus back to the United States at the government’s expense.

It is the latest legal challenge to Trump’s travel ban, which has sparked airport protests nationwide and was implemented with virtually no consultation with top government officials or senior lawmakers. Delaware’s highest-ranking state officials, all Democrats, have excoriated the administration’s decision to temporarily bar U.S. entry for citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia or Yemen, and for refugees worldwide.

The recent action derailed the plans of a young Syrian couple with an 8-month-old child who was in the process of relocating to Delaware this month with the help of the local Jewish Family Services, the Islamic Society of Delaware and Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church.

On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would allow more than 800 refugees to enter the United States this week because they were “considered to be in transit.” It was not immediately clear if the family bound for Delaware was among them; Sarah Green, volunteer refugee resettlement coordinator for Jewish Family Services, did not respond to a request for comment.

Calling the travel ban an Islamic State “propaganda tool,” U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, co-sponsored a bill Monday to withhold federal funding needed to enforce the executive orders. Spearheaded by Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, the bill cites the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which prohibits discrimination of immigrants based on national origin.

“Congress must act immediately to block the ban or we risk religious discrimination becoming enshrined in law,” Coons said in a statement.

Similarly, Attorney General Matt Denn said his office was weighing legal action to fight the order, which he called “a betrayal of basic American values.”

STORY: Trump edict to block Syrian refugee entry to Delaware

The Trump administration and its supporters counter that strict rules are needed to prevent radical Islamic terrorists from entering the country. On Monday, Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for refusing to defend the travel ban.

The recent immigration changes not only ensnared people en route to the United States. They also have far-reaching implications for foreign students and faculty, international business owners, traveling musicians and even an Oscar-winning Iranian film director who may not attend the Academy Awards on Feb. 26.

At the University of Delaware, there are 66 international students, scholars and employees from the seven selected countries who hold non-immigrant visas, according to UD spokesman Peter Bothum. That number doesn’t include all the affected family members and friends of the university community, he added. Nationwide, there are roughly 16,000 university students directly affected by the administration’s actions, according to the Association of Public & Land-grant Universities.

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Stopped from boarding flight

Another UD student, Kimia Ahmadizadeh, said her mother-in-law, Masoomeh Bazdar, was prevented from boarding a flight Saturday in Tehran to visit her family in Newark.

Aware of Trump’s plans to crack down on Muslims traveling to the U.S., Ahmadizadeh and her husband called Qatar Airways last week to change Bazar’s flight from Feb. 3 to Saturday. Ahmadizadeh reasoned that it would take several days for the ban to be fully implemented.

But while Bazdar was on her way to the airport, Qatar Airways informed her that her ticket had been canceled and refunded because of the ban.

It would have been a special visit, Ahmadizadeh said, because Bazdar has never met her 4-month-old granddaughter, Liana. She had planned to arrive in Washington, D.C., and take care of Liana while the couple began their spring semester at UD. Ahmadizadeh, 24, is in a master’s degree program in molecular biology and genetics while her husband is pursuing a doctorate in civil engineering.

The couple moved to a two-bedroom apartment in preparation for the visit and bought an extra bed for Bazdar, who was excited to eat pizza and ice cream while here.

Now, Liana will be sent to daycare, which will eat up half of Ahmadizadeh’s monthly stipend. She is on a student visa and also teaches at UD.

Bazdar qualified for a visa last August. Since Iran has no U.S. Embassy, she had to file her paperwork at the U.S. Embassy in Armenia.

She chose to delay her trip, however, to give her husband a chance to get his visa approved. (His application is still navigating the FBI clearance process.)

Ahmadizadeh said she and her husband chose to study in America because of the quality of the educational institutions and the country’s history of embracing other cultures.

“We chose here because we thought this country is the country of immigrants and people would treat us better than European countries,” she explained.

Ahmadizadeh and her husband had initially planned to remain in the U.S. to work for a few years after earning their degrees. But now they’re considering returning to Iran sooner if the situation for Muslims here gets worse. As of now, the couple can’t visit their families in Iran because they’re worried they won’t be let back into the United States.

Despite the bleak outlook, Ahmadizadeh said she has never encountered discrimination in Delaware. She commended protesters nationwide for standing in solidarity with immigrants.

“I think this is the true America,” she said.

Similarly, Darani, 28, hasn’t lost faith in American values.

“I really love the country and the opportunity,” she said. “I love the people around us.”

The soft-spoken woman with wide eyes expects to stay here for at least five more years to complete her doctorate in chemistry and obtain postdoctoral work. Her younger sister, Shadi Ahmadi Darani, studies mechanical engineering at Michigan Technological University.

Later Saturday, after the Daranis’ mother and the Assali relatives had been sent back to their home countries, a federal judge granted the ACLU’s request for a nationwide temporary injunction that blocks the deportation of all people stranded in U.S. airports under Trump’s executive order. The next day, a federal judge in Los Angeles instructed authorities to bring back an Iranian man who had been stopped at LAX Saturday and sent back to Iran by way of Dubai. U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee ordered that the man be admitted under the terms of his visa, which expires in February.

Judges in multiple states have not yet tackled the larger question of whether the Trump administration’s actions are illegal on a national scale.

ACLU attorney Molly Tack-Hooper said the local chapter had heard that about 15 people were detained at the Philadelphia airport Saturday; about half were eventually released. Several spent Saturday night at a Delaware County jail, she said, before they were free to travel to their final destinations in the U.S.

“The long-term plan is to challenge every unconstitutional, anti-immigrant law that is rolled out and get them shut down,” she said.

Contact Margie Fishman at (302) 324-2882, on Twitter @MargieTrende or mfishman@delawareonline.com.

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