Metro Detroiters add voices to immigration ban protests

James David Dickson, and Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News

Thousands of protesters spilled onto the streets outside and inside Detroit Metro Airport on Sunday night, railing against President Donald Trump’s travel ban with homemade signs and chants.

Emily Wang of Canton and her daughter watch the protests at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

“This is Metro Detroit at its greatest,” said Fatima Salman, one of the protest’s organizers and a board member of the Michigan Muslim Community Council. “I just feel like this is the start of all of us sticking up for each other.”

Throngs marched at the airport, including around the baggage claim, at one point during the protest that lasted nearly three hours against the new travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries. Detroit’s protest was one of many at other airports across the country, but critics of the ban said the effects especially will be felt in Metro Detroit, home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the nation.

Detroit Metro Airport officials said no arrests had been made.

“We grew up in this country and were taught we are one,” said Asma Omar, 22, of Dearborn who attended Sunday night. “We are all Americans. We are the same.”

Omar’s parents were born in Somalia and have extended family who would like to move to the United States, in part to further their college studies.

Protesters gave Omar and her friend Marwa Fidama, 24, who was wearing an American flag hijab, hugs and asked to pose for photos. Both said Trump’s executive order had them frustrated and scared.

“Instead of contrasting our religions, we should be comparing them,” said Fidama, whose father was born in Yemen. “There are many similarities.”

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell said she hasn’t been getting information on who is being detained because of the travel ban.

“Every last one of us wants to make sure we keep this country safe,” said Dingell, who attended the rally. “But keeping this county safe also means that we protect the fundamental pillars of our constitution.

“This hasn’t been thought out. … We are Americans and we need to stand for what that means.”

An airport spokeswoman said airport officials had no information on travelers being refused entry at Metro. The Transportation Security Administration directed comments on how the travel ban affected people arriving in Metro Detroit to Customs and Border Patrol, which did not immediately return a request for comment.

The immediate effect of the order, in addition to sowing widespread confusion and unsettling plans of refugees, legal, permanent residents holding green cards and others, was rebuke from some quarters across the country. The White House on Sunday evening clarified a portion of Trump’s order relating to green cards, saying those holding them wouldn’t necessarily be kept from the United States.

Trump’s order found support from Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who called what he said was the country’s manner of improperly vetting immigrants “ridiculous,” and Michigan Republican Rep. Dave Trott of Birmingham.

“The scenes of refugees fleeing their homes across the Middle East are absolutely heartbreaking. As a father, I feel for these families who have been ripped from their homelands. However, I understand that our first and foremost priority must be to ensure the safety of American families — our children and loved ones,” Trott said in a statement.

But Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Michigan, said thousands of Michigan residents will feel the consequences of the ban.

“Tens of thousands of residents here have family members in those (seven) countries in which their loved ones will not be able to visit for family gatherings, medical procedures, much less those who are fleeing war and terror,” Walid said.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan released a statement Monday morning.

"The City of Detroit is proud of our status as a Welcoming City, where immigrants from all countries are embraced," the statement read. "When President Obama was attacked for his decision to increase acceptance of Syrian refugees, Detroit became a national leader in publicly offering a home for these families.

"I’ve had a chance to visit some of our refugees as they’ve moved into their new homes in Detroit.  Their stories are deeply moving:  fleeing with young children from the horrors of war, barely subsisting in overcrowded refugee camps in Turkey or Jordan, often for years, until the lengthy U.S. vetting process finally clears them.

"When you hear the pride and excitement in their voices for their chance to start a new life in this country, you realize what America means to so many in the world.  Our country won’t be made safer by telling victims of oppression that America’s doors are closed to them or by telling them they’re unwelcome because of their religion. That’s just not who we are as Americans."

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel posted a statement Saturday that said the university will support students regardless of their immigration status.

“We will continue to admit students in a manner consistent with our non-discrimination policy,” Schlissel said. “Once students are admitted, the university is committed to fostering an environment in which each student can flourish.”

He added that the university complies with federal requirements associated with managing its international programs. “Otherwise, the university does not share sensitive information like immigration status,” Schlissel said.

Some good news surfaced Sunday evening: Dearborn attorney Mohamed Elsharnoby has two clients headed to Metro Detroit affected by thetravel ban. In both cases, they were allowed to continue on their travels to rejoin their spouses. Elsharnoby declined to share his clients’ names because of their insecure legal status and it was unclear Sunday where they were in their travel itinerary.

At a rally in Hamtramck, which is home to a large Muslim population, demonstrators Sunday said they gathered with two purposes: to show the Trump administration that it would face opposition to the president’s executive order, and to make area Muslims feel welcome and supported.

“You are not alone!” Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter told the crowd at the Hamtramck rally.

Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski, who was out of town, said her city, an historically Polish enclave now home to a large population of Muslim immigrants, “wants to make sure (Muslims) know the city stands behind them, and that our commitment to them hasn’t changed.”

The rally also served as a call to embrace diversity. Coulter, one of more than a dozen speakers at the rally, said while Hamtramck has a large Muslim population, Ferndale has a large gay population, and he and others argued that no group would be targeted without other groups rising together to join them.

“Gay or straight, black or white, Christian or Muslim, we stand with you,” Coulter said. “Power of the people is always stronger than the people in power.”

Tim Vance of Mount Clemens held a two-sided sign: “Make America Good Again” on one side, and “First They Came for the Muslims” on the other.

“America is a diverse society,” Vance said as the rally turned to a march, and before marchers car-pooled their way to a 4 p.m. protest at Detroit Metro Airport. “We cannot allow fear to control our behaviors.”

His “Make America Good Again” sign was not an endorsement of Trump, but rather a reminder of the mission of the times.

“We already are great, but we’re losing our values, our morals. A lot of people out there are scared, needlessly. What we have is a group of people who want freedom, who want opportunity, but this new administration is trying to take it away.

State officials and lawmakers also lent their voices to the protest.

The director of Gov. Rick Snyder’s Michigan Department of Civil Rights said Sunday that “every person must be judged by the content of their character, not by the country of their origin.”

“When government treats entire groups of people based on its worst elements, it not only harms other members of the group, it hurts us all,” Agustin V. Arbulu said in a statement.

Ahmed Ghanim, from Ferndale, who came to the states from Egypt, leads chants with over  one thousand people taking part in the "Emergency Protest Hamtramck: We Stand in Solidarity with Muslims" Sunday January 29, 2017 at city hall in Hamtramck.

Evan Major, vice president of the Hamtramck Board of Education, told those at the rally that the district is a “safe haven” that will not divulge the immigration status of its children.

“You will not have to worry about your children here,” Major said.

He urged Hamtramck residents to join a Facebook group, Hamtramck Rapid Response Network, in which members will organize to keep members of the community protected.

Most at the rally, according to multiple shows of hands when speakers asked their city of origin, were not Hamtramck residents.

One Hamtramck resident who did participate was Abdual Al Ghazali, a Yemeni-American who arrived in 2000 but became a U.S. citizen in 2003.

He repeated Coulter’s message.

“This country, who built it? Immigrants and refugees. We love this country and we must stand together, doesn’t matter (if you are) Muslim, Christian, Jewish, black, white. We must stand together for a better life,” Al Ghazali said. “My kids have grown up here; this is all they know.”

Michelle Leppek of Detroit carried a sign that said: “No Muslim ban” and carried the Michigan flag.

“We have a lot of Muslim neighbors, and I mentor a young woman from southwest Detroit whose family is immigrants,” Leppek said. “I want them to know they’re welcome here and I stand with them.”

Brothers Haroun Ahmed,12, and Amuarn Ahmed, 16, of Dearborn Heights came with homemade signs to Metro Airport. Their father was born in Yemen before coming to the United States about 20 years ago.

“Why ban an entire group of people for a few who have weapons and are causing mayhem?” Amuarn Ahmed said.

“It is against the Constitution,” Haroun Ahmed said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Staff Writer Kim Kozlowski contributed to this report.