The move was part of what lawyers contend was a series of foot-dragging actions by the administration that appeared to violate court orders against the Trump’s controversial travel ban.
A little over 24 hours after Trump ordered the ban, federal judges in New York, Massachusetts and Virginia issued emergency rulings blocking parts of it. But at Dulles and other airports, customs officers refused to change their procedures until their superiors conveyed instructions from agency lawyers reviewing the court decisions, according to three lawyers familiar with the situation and a congressional staff member investigating the matter.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, at least four hours after the first of the court orders came down, Todd Owen, Customs and Border Protection’s executive assistant commissioner, convened a conference call for field operations to deliver new guidance, according to a person briefed on the call.
But rather than allow the detained travelers to contact lawyers waiting to serve them, Owen’s team advised CBP officers at Dulles to give the travelers phone numbers for legal-services organizations.
“This is a runaround they’re trying to do on these orders,” said Sirine Shebaya, a civil rights lawyer who was on the scene. “This is an unchecked executive that thinks it’s above the judiciary.”
Acting Deputy Commissioner Randolph D. Alles was also aware of the situation, according to Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who said CBP’s congressional affairs staff offered to put Alles on the phone with him on Sunday.
“Downtown was aware,” Connolly said, referring to CBP headquarters. “They’re not rogue elements in the U.S. government and they are not somehow above the law and beyond accountability and transparency in their operations, and they must follow due process, and they must be accountable to Congress.”
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who is suing to stop Trump’s travel ban, said CBP should prove it complied with the court order or be held in contempt. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said she would consider Herring’s motion.
“Whether or not people who were in control should have acted differently, I’m not in a position to address” at the moment, Brinkema said at the hearing. But she emphasized “the great need to be careful at the airport not to violate the court order because there are sanctions that can result.”
Lawyers believe that CBP was overzealous in enforcing Trump’s executive order, which was rolled out with almost no advance planning or coordination. The order immediately set off chaos for international travelers and sparked protests at airports across the country. After reports surfaced of people with approved visas being deported or pressured into signing away their rights to enter the U.S., attorneys demanded the ability to advocate for the rights of immigrants swept up in what Trump has called “extreme vetting.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s internal watchdog said it’s investigating claims that CBP defied court orders after receiving complaints from lawmakers and whistleblowers. Congressional Democrats also pounded DHS with letters demanding answers and records. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), speaking at Dulles late Saturday, called the apparent noncompliance a “constitutional crisis.”
In Boston, where federal judges ordered the government to stop detaining or deporting people who would be allowed into the U.S. were it not for Trump’s executive order, CBP Watch Commander Jason Jalbert told airlines the agency would continue deporting people at Logan International Airport “where it is permissible under the law.” An Iranian scientist with an approved visa sued CBP for keeping her off a Tuesday flight from Switzerland to Boston.