Iraqi-American Lawyer Details Her Detention at U.S. Border in Michigan

Farah Al-kharsen and her husband, Osama Fadel, attend a performance of "The Phantom of the Opera." The couple were detained for several hours at the U.S.-Canada border in Michigan on Friday. Farah Al-kharsen

In her job as an immigration attorney, Farah Al-khersan has worked to reunite families and fight deportation hearings. On Friday night, she found herself in a similar position to some of her clients, when she and her husband were detained at the U.S. border hours after President Donald Trump signed a far-reaching immigration executive order.

Al-khersan, 26, is an American-Iraqi citizen. Her husband, Osama Fadel, 28, is a legal permanent resident of the U.S. and a dual Canadian-Iraqi citizen. On Friday night, the couple drove to Canada from their West Bloomfield, Michigan, to visit Fadel's family, who live in Sarnia, minutes beyond the U.S.-Canada border. They planned to stay the night, but Al-khersan kept getting messages and alerts from other attorneys and organizations she'd worked with about the executive order.

"I knew the order had come out, but I didn't think that my husband would be affected by it," says Al-khersan. Both Al-khersan and Fadel were born in Iraq, but left with their families in the early 1990s. Fadel's family bounced from Libya to Canada, while Al-khersan's family first went to New Zealand before settling in the U.S.

They left for the U.S. at 11 p.m. on Friday in order to beat the inevitable crowds that would have amassed by the morning. Half an hour later, they were stopped at the Port Huron crossing at the U.S.-Canada border and held for the next four hours, just 70 miles from home.

Related: Obama support U.S. protests, says 'American values are at stake'

Signed on Friday afternoon, Trump's executive order plunged U.S. airports into chaos and drew widespread condemnation from not only human rights groups but large portions of the American public, many of whom who spent Trump's first two weekends in office protesting him and his policies. The order bars people from seven Muslim-majority countries—Iraq, Libya, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Sudan—from entering the U.S. for 90 days, and suspends the U.S. refugee resettlement program for 120 days. Syrian refugees, fleeing ongoing violence and conflict in their country, are indefinitely prohibited from entering the U.S.

Thousands of lawyers showed up at U.S. airports to assist those who found themselves detained and stranded in the U.S. Over the past several days, many stories have been reported about those who have been detained, as well as about those who didn't even make it onto planes headed to the U.S. from other countries. For example, more than 60 Muslim refugees due to arrive in Michigan, including many from Iraq and Syria, had their admissions to the U.S. canceled, the Detroit Free Press reported earlier this week.

At the Michigan border crossing, Al-khersan and Fadel were told by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents to get out of their car and go inside an office. Agents took their car keys, Al-khersan's U.S. passport card and Fadel's Canadian passport and U.S. green card. At that point on Friday night, the situation for dual nationals—in this case, a national of one of the seven affected countries and an additional country not on the list—was unclear.

The confusion lasted over the weekend. On Saturday, the Department of Homeland Security said the ban covered green card holders, who in many cases have been living in the U.S. for years. Then on Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said that the executive order "doesn't affect" green card holders but minutes later said "of course" it does. On Saturday night, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was told by National Security Adviser Michael Flynn that Canadian citizens and Canadians who are dual nationals with countries on the list will be allowed into the U.S.

Finally, the White House said on Wednesday that green card holders from the list of countries "no longer need a waiver" to enter the U.S.

CBP agents ran down a list of questions and asked Al-khersan and Fadel when they last went to Iraq, how Al-khersan became a naturalized citizen and why they were in Canada, says Al-khersan. Agents searched their car, but were unable to give any concrete answers about when the couple could be let go, telling them that they didn't know what was going on, that "this is above our pay grade" and that they were waiting for further clarification, she says.

"At one point they said, 'You can go, but your husband has to stay,'" says Al-khersan. She stayed with him, but is haunted by stories of people being forced to relinquish their green cards by border agents, something that could have happened to Fadel if she wasn't there. "I knew we were in there for the sole reason of the place of birth on his green card," which was "mind-boggling to me" because neither have proof of citizenship in Iraq, having fled the country when they were children. While she has been questioned before at the U.S. border due to her birthplace, this time was different.

"I've never been kept that long," she says. "Maybe I wouldn't have been kept if I was traveling alone, but does that mean my husband and I are going to have to be separated so that I can stay here? That's the issue."

After several hours of uncertainty, the couple prepared to go back to Canada in order to try to enter the U.S. again the next day. But agents then unexpectedly took their documents back, leaving the couple uncertain for another hour. Finally, at around 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, agents returned their documents and let them both pass through. Al-khersan still doesn't know why.

"It just feels like you do everything the right way, you flee persecution, you come here just to feel like you've taken a few steps back," she says. "I was overcome with emotion. It felt very isolating. People kept saying, 'You guys were let go.' We were, but it's not about being searched or being asked questions, it's the reasoning behind it. Would this have happened if we weren't born in Iraq? No."

Shortly after being released, Al-khersan posted about the experience on Facebook, and it has been shared nearly 1,000 times. Fadel, a pharmacist, plans to not travel outside the U.S. for the next three months to ensure he doesn't get trapped at the border again. Al-khersan is also telling her clients—including those from Yemen, Syria, Libya and Iraq, and some "who are literally life or death," she says—to remain in the U.S. for now, unless there's an unavoidable emergency.

"There are other families that don't have that [option of Canadian] citizenship. If they go back, they're facing death, they're facing torture," she says. "For them I'm very fearful."

Al-khersan says she's now concerned about "dreamers," or people brought by their families to the U.S. illegally as children. In 2012, President Barack Obama passed the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed those people to remain in the U.S. Al-khersan worries that DACA will be canceled. She also fears that the ban will last longer than the 90- and 120-day limits imposed by the government, and that more countries will be added to the list.

"I think there's more to come," she says.

Despite being detained, Al-khersan says she and Fadel have been "humbled" by the support from the community, and have taken comfort in people changing and challenging their thinking, or taking further steps to see what they can do.

"As sad as it is, it will take someone they know to be affected to challenge their thinking and to open their eyes and see that this is not OK," she says. "We can have secure borders, we can do what we can to screen and will continue to do that, but that doesn't mean we have to isolate people based on their national origin."

She added: "You belong here, even if you're feeling like you don't."