Family of Syrians deported at PHL sue President Trump, Department of Homeland Security

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    Joey Assali's six family members were sent back to the Middle East on Saturday despite having valid visas and recipes for green cards. The suit is demanding that the deported family member be brought back to the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Joey Assali)

    Joey Assali's six family members were sent back to the Middle East on Saturday despite having valid visas and recipes for green cards. The suit is demanding that the deported family member be brought back to the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Joey Assali)

    Several members of the Allentown-based Assali family have filed a lawsuit in federal court in Philadelphia against President Trump, the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection challenging the detention and removal of the Syrian family. 

    The complaint alleges that Trump’s order violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by giving preferential treatment to one religion. In addition, the suit argues that Trump’s order runs afoul of the equal protection guarantee of  due process, among other counts.

    The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, is asking that the federal government return the Assalis revoked visas and arrange transportation for the family back to the United States at the government’s expense.

    “The fact they went through this vetting process for such a substantial time and happened to arrive here the day after the executive order was issued is really quite remarkable,” said Jonathan Feinberg, one of the attorneys representing the Assali family. “And speaks to the viciousness of this executive order.”

    The last name of the plaintiffs in the suit is listed as “Asali,” but they family go by “Assali.” The Arabic-to-English translation has led some in the family to adopt different spellings.

    The suit follows federal immigration officials turning away six members of the Assali family at the Philadelphia International Airport this past weekend. The Damascus-based family had valid visas and green cards approved after starting the process nearly 14 years ago. They left from an airport in Qatar on Friday. But because the Orthodox Christian family originated from Syria, they were denied entry, and sent back to Doha.

    “We never believed in any way that our family who are devout and faithful Christians would be subject to this so-called Muslim ban. It’s disrespectful, and it’s a disgrace to this nation,” said Joey Assali, who is a student at Temple University. 

    Pennsylvania’s leaders have criticized Trump’s so-called Muslim ban — especially how it totally altered the family’s fate.

    “This is not who we are,” Gov. Tom Wolf told reporters on Sunday. “The United States was set up to be a place where people could escape oppression. This is not a place where people come to experience oppression, and that’s what their family members experienced.”

    Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney had a more grim assessment.

    “The Trump administration very well may have just given these families a death sentence,” Kenney said.

    Meanwhile, the family launched an online fundraising effort which has already brought in more than $16,000 to support bringing the Assali family members back.

    Trump’s order Friday afternoon had multiple components. It blocked refugees from coming into the country for 120 days, banned Syrians altogether and prevented migrants from seven mostly Muslim countries from coming into the United States. Many legal experts have noted how ambiguous parts of the order were written, creating confusion and mixed messages over how immigration officials are to interpret and enforce the order.

    Thus began a spate of lawsuits state by state.  

    So far, judges in four states — New York, Virginia, Massachusetts and Washington state — have issued temporary restraining orders that, at least for now, stop immigration officials from deporting people targeted by Trump’s executive order.

    “This rhetoric is exactly what Trump was speaking about in his campaign,” Joey Assali said on Tuesday. “You can’t direct all the anger and resentment toward him. The blame also lies with the people who support this, who think this is right to do to people.” 

    But federal judges have not yet ruled on the larger constitutional question of whether Trump’s actions are lawful.

    Attorney Feinberg said a case testing the legal questions underpinning the order will eventually provide nationwide guidance. 

    “What as I expect is that as time moves on, it will simply be whichever court rules on the issue first, which will take the lead,” Feinberg said. “Other courts will be asked to follow the lead of whatever court that may be.” 

    The Assalis’ case has generated considerable national attention. Recently, though, the family has been the recipient of hateful messages after an NBC story reported that the Assalis voted for Donald Trump for President.

    But the family members told WHYY that nobody in their family voted in November at all. What they meant to say in the NBC interview was that they thought Hillary Clinton might continue targeted airstrikes in Syria aimed at ISIS fighters, which have also claimed civilian lives, so Trump was, in their mind, the better candidate for their ancestral homeland.

    It’s not uncommon to find Trump support in Syrian Christian communities like Allentown, where the Assalis reside. 

    Joey Assali, who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, said Tuesday he disavowed most of Trump’s policy proposals, though the one possibility that appealed to him was the possibility of Trump leaving Syria alone. Even still, he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Trump. 

    “The churches I grew up to see, the family, the neighborhoods I grew up in, I did not want them bombed and destroyed. I wanted the chance, the semblance of a life I could go back to and see,” Assali said. “Under a Trump administration, we thought he would be more focused homeward, not making my country horrible, not devastating my people.” 

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