A refugee family from Afghanistan touched down in Atlanta late Monday, becoming among the last to arrive in Georgia under a polarizing new executive order restricting immigration enacted by the Trump administration.
Wali Omari had worked as a driver in the U.S. embassy in Kabul. He and his his wife, Parwana, along with their five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son landed at Hartsfield Jackson International-Airport just before midnight.
They were greeted with hugs and flowers by about two dozen well wishers in the arrivals area, some holding signs that said “Welcome Home.” Many were with the International Rescue Committee in Atlanta, which is preparing resettle them here. The family, looking happy but tired, had traveled more than 25 hours, a journey that was marked by uncertainty after President Donald Trump on Friday temporarily blocked refugees from coming to the United States as part of a promised crackdown on immigration.
Speaking briefly to reporters at the airport, Omari said he was anxious he and his family would not be able to complete the final leg of their trip - from Germany to the United States - because of Trump’s ban.
Omari feared he and his family were in danger because of his work with the Americans in Afghanistan, said his cousin, Ahmad Zia Mahbob, who lives in Clarkston.
The family is among 872 refugees from around the world exempted from Trump’s order because they had already been approved for resettlement in cities across the U.S., were in transit and because their “denial of admission would cause undue hardship.”
Widespread protests erupted over the weekend as the travel ban took effect at airports around the country, including Atlanta. The Trump administration has tweaked some aspects of the plan, making clear, for example, that travelers with green cards could re-enter the United States. But it has stood firm behind the order, arguing it is needed to shield Americans from would-be terrorists.
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins joined other Republican lawmakers from Georgia in expressing support for Trump’s mandate.
“Protecting the people of the United States remains the top priority of its leaders,” he said, “and thoughtful vigilance on this front has made our nation a beacon of hope to people throughout the world.”
But a widening list of critics argue it is aimed at denying entry to Muslims and doesn’t include some nations, like Saudi Arabia, with known ties to terrorism.
On Monday night, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, formerly the top federal prosecutor in Atlanta, ordered the Justice Department not to defend the measure in court. Trump promptly fired her. She was an Obama administration appointee.
A Bhutanese father, mother and their 18-year-old son were also set to arrive in Atlanta Monday night, said Joshua Sieweke, the Atlanta office director for World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency. They were flying in from Nepal.
Jesse Ciavone, 20, was awaiting the arrival of the Omari family late Monday with a friend who works as an intern for the IRC.
"It's our duty as a nation to try and provide for those trying to flee a crisis situation," he said.
"When someone is in the face of death they shouldn't be turned away because of race or religion."
Those exempted must still submit to interviews and national security checks. And the exemption does not apply to the seven predominantly Muslim countries covered in Trump’s executive order: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.
Meanwhile, many other refugees from Eritrea, Somalia and Myanmar have been blocked from resettling in the Atlanta area amid enforcement of Trump’s decree, according to three Atlanta-area resettlement agencies. Among them are a 57-year-old widow and her 31-year-old wheelchair-bound niece from Somalia, said J.D. McCrary, executive director of the IRC in Atlanta. McCrary could not confirm the cancellation of their trip was related to Trump’s order, though he assumes it is because of the timing.
“These two women could not possibly be considered a security threat to America,” he said. “Choosing to slam America’s door on refugees is a betrayal of who we are as a nation and is deeply disturbing.”
The IRC is expecting the arrival of 24 other refugees this week from Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Among them is a 32-year-old Christian woman from Myanmar who wants to reunite with her husband in Georgia.
But others aren’t so lucky.
Another Atlanta area refugee resettlement agency — New American Pathways — confirmed 18 refugees from Eritrea, Myanmar and Somalia who had previously been scheduled to arrive in Atlanta starting this week have been blocked by Trump’s order. Among them are a pregnant woman from Eritrea and some Rohingya Muslims who are facing persecution in their predominantly Buddhist homeland of Myanmar.
Lutheran Services of Georgia reported that several dozen refugees, set to touch down in February, will no longer be coming. They were from Syria, Iran, Somalia, Burma, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Further, a Syrian Refugee family that was expected to arrive in Atlanta this week has been blocked from coming here, said Sieweke, of World Relief. But a 19-year-old El Salvadorian refugee is scheduled to arrive in Atlanta Tuesday followed by two people from the Ivory Coast and seven from Eritrea in February, he said.
On Monday, controversy over Trump’s decree surfaced on the floor of the state Senate, where several Democratic lawmakers decried the “chaos” it created over the weekend and said they supported those protesting it. But their objections were met with a stony silence from Republicans, as well as a reprimand from state Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus. Kirk said he had spent the weekend looking after the communities around his district in South Georgia, which is still recovering from recent storms that killed at least 15 people in the state. The presidential election was over, Kirk said.
“It is time for us to come together and stop the divisiveness,” he said.
Issued late Friday afternoon, the president’s order bars any refugees from resettling in the U.S. for four months and it indefinitely blocks Syrian refugees from resettling here. Further, it bars people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. for three months: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.
Trump took to Twitter Monday morning to defend his order. He said only 109 out of 325,000 travelers who arrived in the U.S. Saturday were detained for questioning.
“There is nothing nice about searching for terrorists before they can enter our country,” he tweeted. “This was a big part of my campaign. Study the world!”
Staff writers Tammy Joyner and Kristina Torres contributed to this report.