Protesters at Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Sunday joined other demonstrators across the nation expressing opposition to President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning many Muslims from entering the United States.
Trump’s order targets refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, but demonstrators at RDU pledged Sunday that Muslims and refugees were welcome in the Triangle.
“I’m hoping protests across the country will show solidarity to immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants,” said Phaedra Kelly of Carrboro. “I hope it sends a message to the Democrats in Congress that they need to speak out fervently and maybe get a couple GOP to speak out as well. Because the ban is unconstitutional.”
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Felix Etchells, 5, and his mother, Liz, carried signs reading “Make America Nice Again,” as they stood in the throng of demonstrators.
“We’re here because I wanted to show my son that this is not what America is about; refugees are welcome here, everyone is welcome here,” Liz Etchells said. “I wanted to come out because I wanted to show him that when you believe in something, you support it.”
Etchells said the issue of immigration is close to her family, as her husband, hailing from England, is in the country with a green card.
“Legal, U.S. permanent residents who are not allowed back into their countries, where their families are, where they live, it’s obviously very, very upsetting to us,” Etchells said. “He’s from England, so it’s unlikely he would be banned, but still that’s something I never would have expected.”
On Sunday, a Trump administration official eased part of the president’s executive order. Department of Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly said travelers from affected countries who hold green cards will not be prevented from entering the United States.
“In applying the provisions of the president’s executive order, I hereby deem the entry of lawful permanent residents to be in the national interest,” Kelly said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
Outside RDU’s Terminal 2, chants including “No ban, no wall” and “refugees are welcome here” were heard throughout the three-hour protest. Cheers rang out every time a new airport shuttle carrying demonstrators arrived, adding to a crowd that airport officials estimated at more than 1,000. With a permit originally approved for only 150 people, the crowd grew so large it shut down traffic to the upper level of the terminal.
Archer Salim, 38, a U.S. citizen originally from Iran, said his parents were on their way to visit him in Raleigh but are now stuck in Armenia awaiting permission to enter the United States. He pointed to an email from the U.S. State Department that postponed a visa interview with them. Because the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Iran, Salim said his parents had to travel through Turkey, Dubai or Armenia.
Salim said he came to America seeking corporate dreams.
“I thought, well, if you want to pursue your dreams, what better country is there than the United States?” Salim said. “I had opportunities all over the world. But I preferred to be here.”
Bruce McCall, a Vietnam veteran, said he was a Trump voter. McCall said he came to the protest trying to gain a wider perspective.
“I wanted to see what’s going on and just get some feeling on why things are so divided; I’d like to see the two sides unite, if that’s possible at all,” McCall said. “I wanted to get a different angle on things and make a better informed decision on things.”
McCall said the protest didn’t necessarily move him one way or the other on immigration. He doesn’t believe a wall along the Mexican border will accomplish anything and questioned why the immigration restrictions didn’t include Saudi Arabia, where many of the 9/11 attackers were from.
“I’m wavering back and forth,” McCall said. “I have no objections to the right of protest, no matter what it’s over.”
After assembling peacefully for nearly two hours, a small group tried to rush into the terminal building but was blocked by police officers, airport officials and other protesters urging civility.
“It’s great to see so many people in solidarity, but it’s starting to become uncivil at this point,” protest organizer Amanda Weissman said. “We wanted to keep a peaceful protest, so to prevent people from being arrested or injured, we’re trying to disband it right now.”
Protesters marched on along the terminal road but were eventually blocked by a line of state troopers and Raleigh police officers. Most of the demonstrators continued to rally and cheer, but organizers urged them to go home, saying RDU officials called for the protest to end. Julia Sherifi, who said she was a refugee from Kosovo, was given a police loudspeaker and encouraged the crowd to disperse. Over the next hour, protesters returned to their cars and left the airport after police threatened arrests.
The head of North Carolina’s Republican Party, Dallas Woodhouse, said that the United States will always welcome immigrants but that the president is installing a system that “puts America first.”
“We will make sure the people entering this country, broadly speaking, do so legally and within the rules,” Woodhouse said in a phone interview. “The first question we’re going to be asking is does this person coming here serve the interest of the American people? Do they want to cause harm to us?”
Woodhouse said there are imperfections in the travel ban that would be fixed.
“When you have a president that is fundamentally reasserting a strong patriotic system that puts American interests first, there’s always going to be some details that need to get worked out,” Woodhouse said.