Los Angeles, United States – Lawyers and protesters fanned across Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) terminal on Tuesday, distributing questionnaires to travellers from the Middle East and Africa.
Were you “asked to sign something?” asks one of the questions on the form.
The answers are meant to offer the public some insight into what happens in airport holding facilities, where travellers who have been detained are barred from outside contact – a practice that critics say reflects the lack of transparency about US immigration.
Detainees’ phones are reportedly confiscated when they are taken into custody, preventing them from reaching relatives or legal representatives, and documenting their experience inside.
Since US President Donald Trump issued on Friday an executive order suspending the resettlement programme for Syrian refugees, and banning entry of travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries, reports of “immigration misconduct” have surged.
US immigration authorities “have a long-standing practice of coercing people from Muslim and Latin countries … to sign away their rights,” said Ameena Mirza Qazi, a civil rights lawyer, activist and executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, Los Angeles chapter.
“People are essentially revoking their applications to come to the United States and consenting to be sent back,” she told Al Jazeera.
Qazi is one of countless lawyers at LAX and airports across the nation leading the charge against Trump’s executive order.
They have been offering free legal counsel to travellers who say they have experienced heightened problems with immigration authorities following the immigration ban.
“We’re hearing reports this is going on – but in a discriminatory and concentrated fashion with people from Muslim-majority countries,” Qazi said.
Like Qazi, Talia Inlender, an immigration lawyer with Public Counsel, was also at the airport premises offering free legal advice to new arrivals.
Inlender said that on Saturday her law firm helped a family whose brother entered the country “with an immigrant visa” but was held overnight and later “put back on a plane”.
“We haven’t seen the documents. But it appears he signed documents that waived those rights and landed him on a plane back. We worked with the [American Civil Liberties Union advocacy group] to file a court action. The District Court here in California ordered that he be permitted to return to the United States.”
‘Signing away’ green cards
Irlender told Al Jazeera that it is crucial to verify the reports circulating around alleged misconduct. But she said that with the passage of the post-9/11 Patriot Act and the USA Freedom Act of 2015, transparency in US security measures has been rare.
“If true, then there will need to be legal action taken to stop the government from coercing people to waive their rights. These people are scared, coming in after long travel – not fluent in English, not understanding what they are signing,” she added.
Al Jazeera was not immediately able to independently verify reports of travellers being coerced into signing away their immigration status.
At the time of publication, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had not yet responded to a request for comment on this, and other allegations of mistreatment of detained travellers.
But two Yemeni brothers filed a lawsuit on Saturday against Trump, the CBP and others, alleging that authorities forced them to sign away their green cards before they were sent back to their point of origin in Ethiopia.
Qazi and Inlender’s fight is not just for detainees from the seven countries named in Trump’s ban. It is for all Americans.
On Saturday, a federal court issued an order staying the ban.
“Trump and the executive branch are completely ignoring the judicial branch which under our constitution is supposed to stop the explosive overreach of power by the executive branch,” Qazi said.
‘Shock and awe without bombs’
Tuesday’s demonstration at LAX started in mid-afternoon, as Emirates and Air France flights from the Middle East were just arriving in Los Angeles.
A group of chauffeurs stood with placards with Arabic and Persian-language names, patiently waiting for their travelers to arrive.
A Palestinian American named Sami said he was confident his mother would make it through customs, despite reports that people of Middle Eastern and Muslim origin from countries not mentioned in the ban have faced extra scrutiny.
Instead, Sami, a Christian, said he feared for his wife, a green-card holder.
“What if she goes and [Trump] adds more countries [to the ban] suddenly, and she can’t come back?” he asked.
Nancy, an Egyptian American woman in her late 20s, was also waiting for a relative.
“I think it’s interesting they call it a Muslim ban, and it’s not a Muslim ban,” she said, noting that it has frightened many Christians like her.
On Friday, a Yemeni man of Jewish faith was also detained, following the immigration ban, according to a widely circulated social media post later reported by the website Forward.
One lawyer, who asked not to be named, told Al Jazeera that authorities had also held a green card-holder of Arab origin travelling from the Gulf, even though that person was not from one of the seven countries included in Trump’s ban.
The person was reportedly held for more than 30 hours in a room with 10 other people before being released.
Al Jazeera has withheld personal details of the detainee so as not to jeopardise the person’s immigration status.
Authorities reportedly gave the person water and a cup of noodles, but confiscated the person’s phone, watch and shoelaces. There have been reports that some detainees have tried to commit suicide while in custody, prompting authorities to remove the detainee’s shoelaces, the source told Al Jazeera.
Outside LAX terminal, demonstrators wait to be the first thing the released detainees see.
Sara Gorsky, 32, is a facilitator connecting newcomers who have been detained with translators and aid.
“I just showed up with a thing of coffee for the lawyers – I didn’t know how to help,” she said.
Ian Lobell, 49, is a social justice advocate who wanted to show his solidarity to immigrants arriving in the US.
“Americans are confused. It’s a military strategy from our wars – Shock and Awe. Go into Baghdad – hit them so hard the public can’t make sense of it,” he said. “Now we’re doing it to our public without bombs.”