Congresswomen Pramila Jayapal and Suzan DelBene spent Saturday night trying to get answers from Customs and Border Patrol.
Congresswomen Pramila Jayapal and Suzan DelBene spent Saturday night trying to get answers from Customs and Border Protection. office of pramila jayapal

As chaos unfolded at airports across the country on Saturday, it quickly became clear that officials ranging from frontline border patrol agents to high-ranking members of the administration were unprepared for President Donald Trump's travel ban.

In Washington, that turmoil translated to a group of state and federal leaders unable to find answers to questions as basic as how many people were being detained at Sea-Tac International Airport. Now, two Seattle-area Congresswomen want answers from federal officials.

Washington Representatives Pramila Jayapal and Suzan DelBene were at Sea-Tac for several hours Saturday trying to get Customs and Border Protection officials to meet with them and provide information about how many people were being detained, where they were from, and what was going to happen to them. Port of Seattle Commissioner Courtney Gregoire and staff representing Governor Jay Inslee and Senator Patty Murray were also on site, trying to get information and to stop detainees from being sent back. On Saturday afternoon, the governor's office told The Stranger the feds were sharing "virtually no information" about detainees with the state.

In an interview, Jayapal described repeatedly demanding meetings with CBP officials and at one point, "literally banging on the door" of a CBP office with DelBene. Lawyers from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project had been at the airport since 6 am. When Jayapal arrived around 2 pm, one Somali man had already been sent back to Heathrow Airport. It remains unclear where he will ultimately end up; his family fears for his safety if he's sent back to Somalia, Jayapal says. Throughout the evening, it was unclear how many people had been detained—reports ranged from four to 14—or whether they were getting legal help. Jayapal says she heard federal officials argue that because people hadn’t been admitted to the U.S., they weren’t entitled to attorneys, which, she says, is "technically true, I suppose, but incredibly inhumane."

Even once a federal judge in New York temporarily blocked deportations across the country and a Washington judge issued a temporary restraining order to stop the deportations of two people detained at Sea-Tac, Jayapal says CBP officials at the airport hadn't seen those documents.

"[Lawyers] were holding the [temporary restraining order] on their phones up to the people’s faces, saying, 'We have this restraining order. You cannot deport these people," Jayapal says.

CBP agents "didn’t have any notice themselves," Jayapal says. "They didn’t have any instructions on how to proceed."

Jayapal and DelBene filed a brief as part of the case that stopped two people from being deported. "There is a lack of clarity regarding how many people have actually been detained," the brief reads. "In fact, when asked directly about how many individuals are detained here in Seattle no official was able to provide that information."

As local political leaders tried to figure out what was going on at Sea-Tac Saturday, protesters flooded the airport.
As local political leaders tried to figure out what was going on at Sea-Tac Saturday, protesters flooded the airport. ULYSSES CURRY

Now, Jayapal and DelBene have sent a series of questions to federal officials, still trying to get specific answers about how many people were detained, what their immigration status is, and how many people from Sea-Tac were sent back after being denied entry.

In a letter to Kevin McAleenan, acting commissioner of CBP, DelBene is clearly frustrated. "As a Member of Congress with the responsibility to serve my constituents and their families as they interact with taxpayer-funded federal agencies like CBP," she wrote, "and as all my attempts to get basic information about detainees at Sea-Tac were rebuffed the evening of January 28, 2017, I submit these written questions and request your prompt reply."

In the letter, she requested copies of any guidance given to CBP about how to enforce the ban, information about people detained at Sea-Tac, and information about "why the administration did not offer better guidance to CBP personnel on how to execute the order."

Senator Patty Murray has met with the family of the Somali man who was deported, according to her office. Murray called the weekend's events "nothing short of appalling." And on Thursday night, Jayapal and others plan to give speeches on the House floor about the effects of the travel ban. (Congressman Dave Reichert, a Republican from Auburn, meanwhile, supports the travel ban.)

Jayapal called Saturday's legal wins "smaller victories that give us hope that is desperately needed in these moments."

"That doesn’t mean it's a longterm victory, like getting rid of the executive order," she adds, "but it's important for being able to keep up the energy and the momentum and letting people know their voices really do matter."

If you're affected by the travel ban and need legal assistance, reach out to the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project at 800-445-5771 or email the ACLU of Washington at travel@aclu-wa.org.