Inside the sprawling arrivals hall of Philadelphia International Airport’s Terminal A, Mayor Jim Kenney strode into the middle of a circle of protesters. The crowd, many of whom may never have seen the mayor in person before, broke into cheers.
Kenney was there to deliver information about several Syrian refugee families that had apparently been detained by federal immigration authorities as the result of an executive order by President Donald Trump banning travelers from seven majority Muslim countries from entering the United States.
“There are lawyers working now drafting petitions for them to be released...We don’t know what’s going on – everything is emotion right now,” he told the crowd, urging patience. “Thank you for being here and protesting in a peaceful way.”
Kenney later said he had been told by lawyers working with the American Civil Liberties Union that they had filed a writ of habeas corpus pulled directly from an earlier effort to halt deportations at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The mayor had little other news – not even lawyers had yet been allowed to see the detainees – in fact, he said, federal agents had earlier rebuffed him from gaining access to the detainees.
The lawyers later stated that at least two families were apparently being held, but could not say exactly how many were in detention. Two Christian Syrian families had reportedly been deported back to Qatar earlier in the day, despite their reportedly having been cleared to enter the US in 2015.
Kenney told protesters there was unlikely to be any more progress on Saturday, although the ACLU later stated that a federal judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania had ruled that the Philadelphia detainees released the following day.
Alongside Kenney, Pennsylvania Democrats like US Sen. Bob Casey, Gov. Tom Wolf, Congressmen Bob Brady and Dwight Evans, state Reps. Brian Sims and Jordan Harris, and Councilwoman Helen Gym had all suddenly assembled amid the hundreds of raucous protesters. Casey abruptly left the night’s Academy Ball in downtown Philadelphia to attend, still dressed in white tie and tails.
“This is Pennsylvania, this is a place of tolerance and openness,” said Wolf. “These are legal immigrants...I say to them, you are welcome here.”
Like Kenney, few of the pols had any concrete information and, of course, little direct power to influence a federal immigration order. But Gym and Kenney had nevertheless helped spread word just hours earlier through social media, summoning the crowd to the airport. A second protest is scheduled to take place tomorrow at 2 p.m.
"As Councilwoman Helen Gym said, our pressure was why those lawyers and our elected officials could push to advocate for those families," said protestor and Media Mobilizing Project organizer Hannah Sassaman, afterwards. "My white, Ashkenazi Jewish family emigrated to Philadelphia and Toronto from Germany and Lithuania in the years before the Holocaust...Everyone, every family, deserves to cross borders to find that same dignity and success."
A staffer from the Mayor’s Office of Civic Engagement later circulated a paper, entitled “Emergency Alert Sign-up” throughout the crowd, quizzing people on how they could best be reached for “future protests.” The latest demonstrations come on the heels of other mass protests that shook downtown Philadelphia during this week’s Congressional Republican retreat, which also featured some local Democrats, like Gym.
On the other side of the aisle, PA Republican Congressman Charlie Dent publicly decried the ban, but most were silent. US Sen. Pat Toomey did not immediately respond to a request for comment and was otherwise absent in the media as he attended a Koch Brothers donor seminar in Palm Springs. The senator had previously opposed the president's campaign rhetoric about barring Muslim immigrants. On Sunday, his spokeswoman said that he was traveling and thus unable to comment.
Towards the end of the protest, Brady praised the work of immigration officers, despite his opposition to the local detentions.
“They’ve been extremely helpful, the customs people,” he said. “But they’re taking orders from you-know-who.”
UPDATE, 1/29/17 at 4 p.m.: this story has been updated to reflect a statement from US Sen. Pat Toomey's spokeswoman on his unavailability for comment.