No one was detained at the Pittsburgh International Airport Sunday, but the crowd showed up anyway.
In solidarity with similar protests across the country, including those at Washington Dulles International and John F. Kennedy International airports, about 150 people gathered in the airport’s terminal to decry President Donald Trump’s wide-sweeping anti-immigration order.
The president issued an executive order Friday suspending immigration to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days, all refugees for 120 days and Syrian refugees indefinitely.
In response, from Oakland to Moon Township and across the country, people once again hefted their protest signs and bundled up to speak out against the “Muslim ban.” The name comes from the president himself, whose bid for office focused on swiftly restricting access to the United States to prevent terrorist attacks.
In a decidedly Pittsburgh twist, some refrains of “no hate, no fear, yinz are welcome here” — mingled with choruses of “this is what democracy looks like” — rang through the arrivals gate at the rally Sunday afternoon. As travelers streamed past, many took out cellphones to record. Some voiced support for the protests, while others shouted “Trump!” at the noisy group.
Throughout his campaign, Trump made U.S. immigration policy reform a top priority and said he would consider religious affiliations when evaluating new immigrants. In 2015, after the San Bernardino shootings, Trump, then one of many Republicans running for the party’s nomination, promised a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” But the president was adamant this weekend that religion wasn’t a motivating factor.
“This is not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe,” the president said in a statement.
His backtracking wasn’t enough to quell the ensuing chaos. Outside John F. Kennedy Airport in New York and Dulles International in Washington DC, thousands gathered this Saturday, after lawful residents of the United States were detained by government officials. They’d be joined by a few hundred at the frigid corner of Forbes Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard in Pittsburgh as well — all to protest the president’s order and its consequences.
Standing on that frozen corner, smiling through the cold was Jan Harkes, 46, an immigrant from the Netherlands. A green card holder, Harkes brought his American son, Calvin, to the protest. Each took turns holding a colorful homemade sign reading “Be Kind Mr. Trump.”
“I’d hate to be in the position of some people arriving at JFK who are turned away at the gates. [Protesting] is the right thing to do,” Harkes said.
While the ban hasn’t been lifted, by Saturday night, a lawsuit brought by the New York branch of the American Civil Liberties Union managed to suspend the deportation of a few green card holders by federal immigration officials. But some individuals, even those with valid visas or green cards who were not yet American citizens, were detained by airport security for hours if they were from one of the seven countries: Libya, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan and Yemen.
Yashar Aucie, a second-year bioengineering PhD student at Pitt, said his sister, Gilda Assi, and brother-in-law, Javad Fotouhi, experienced problems on Saturday during their trip back to Baltimore from Iran, where they’d been visiting family.
During the couple’s layover in Istanbul, people who were not greencard holders or U.S. citizens could not board the connecting flight. Assi and Fotouhi — both born in Iran and current green card holders— arrived in the U.S. around 6:30 p.m., but were pulled out of the customs line and grilled about their families and their purpose in the United States before being released at 10:30 p.m.
“My parents were planning to go to Iran in a couple weeks, but I don’t think they are planning to anymore,” Aucie said. “My brother-in-law, who is a scientist at John Hopkins University, was planning on going to Europe in June to present some of his papers, but now he said he’s not going to.”
According to the Pitt Factbook, 61 out of 3,012 international students at the University are from one of the five banned countries. No current Pitt students are from Yemen or Somalia. Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher defended those students in an emailed statement Saturday saying they contribute to Pitt’s “vibrant community.”
“Our University’s remarkable success story has been written by individuals who came from all over the world — by men and women who shared all types of religious beliefs,” Gallagher said in the statement. “They came to Pittsburgh to learn, to teach, to discover and to serve. Without question, we are a better University because of them.”
A resounding echo of those ideals burst forth Saturday when about 300 protesters gathered in Schenley Plaza. Chants of “the people united will never be divided” melded with honks of support from passing drivers.
Warmly dressed protesters initially gathered under the tent in Schenley Plaza before relocating to the corner of Forbes and Bigelow to support refugees and immigrants as part of the “No Ban! No Wall! Emergency Solidarity Rally.” ANSWER Pittsburgh — which stands for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism — the Thomas Merton Center, the Pittsburgh chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace and the Council on American-Islamic Relations hosted the rally.
Speakers, such as Pittsburgh resident Omar Mussa, shared the microphone and opened the rally by discussing bigotry and bias against immigrants in the media and government.
“As Trump said [in his inaugural address], ‘We’re transferring power back to the people.’ Well we the people are immigrants,’” Mussa said to cheers from the crowd.
The crowd then marched along Forbes from Pitt’s campus to a flagpole on Carnegie Mellon University’s campus, chanting along the way — a solidarity honk from one Port Authority bus eliciting cheers from the crowd. After a few more speeches, they dispersed from CMU’s campus promising to continue the fight.
Even with the vocal opposition from many marching Americans, Trump’s immigration plans were among his most popular with supporters. Some also think he’s on the right track.
Reza Liaghat, 53, who was just passing through the airport during Sunday’s rally, didn’t think the executive order provided clarity on immigration. Liaghat, who moved from Iran to the United States when he was 14-years-old, thought the ban was justified.
“By not allowing them in, we stop the whole [terrorist] threat,” Liaghat said.
Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey is among several Senate Republicans who had yet to comment on Trump’s order as of 7 p.m. Sunday night — a fact the protesters gathered at the airport seemed keenly aware of.
At one point, a protester at the airport lifted his cell phone in the air, actively calling Toomey’s office. Chanting “where are you Toomey,” they demanded the senator — who also supported Trump’s earlier executive order against cities sanctuary cities, or cities that don’t cooperate with federal immigration enforcement — be held accountable for his stances.
Local leaders did come through however. Pittsburgh School Board member Lynda Wrenn, City Councilman Dan Gilman and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto all visited the airport to show their support for the protesters at about 3:30 p.m. Peduto even took to a hastily set up speaker to give a brief speech on Pittsburgh’s own nativist history.
He described the mayoral run of Joe Barker, a street preacher-turned-politician from the 1850’s who ran on an Anti-Catholic platform and imprisoned Pittsburgh’s Catholic bishop.
Peduto also described his own Italian immigrant grandparents who encountered a hostile KKK faction in Pittsburgh, and how America turned away Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.
“That’s part of our history, we can’t forget it. And those who forget our history are doomed to repeat it,” Peduto said.
Christian Beveridge, a first-year economics-statistics dual major, came to the airport by himself in a bright gold and blue Pitt script sweatshirt, echoing Peduto’s sentiment.
Holding a sign that read “Pittsburgh students welcome refugees” he had hastily scribbled on cardboard about an hour earlier, Beveridge said he was there because “action works.”
“History is watching us,” Beveridge said. “Refugees are the most American thing of all.”
Contributed reporting by Abhignya Mallepalli and Eric Heckler.