Eli Habbabeh, 26, is a U.S. citizen and Palm Coast business owner. His parents were held at the airport after President Donald Trump's executive order banning travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Eli Habbabeh’s parents weren’t there when he went to pick them up at arrivals at Orlando International Airport Jan. 29. He hoped the issue was minor, but he’d been watching the news. They were flying from their native Syria.
The hours started to tick by. He’d seen TV footage of the detentions and protests at airports across the country.
“We got to the airport and two, three hours passed,” he said. “That’s when I started getting worried.”
Habbabeh, who moved to the U.S. from Damascus, Syria, about six years ago, is now a citizen and the owner of the Blaze N Flame tobacco shop at 4845 Belle Terre Parkway. He came to the U.S. after falling in love with and marrying an American woman (they have since divorced), and not long after Habbabeh arrived in the United States, Syria’s civil war began.
He’s been trying to bring the rest of his family over from Syria.
His parents, Mary Safar and Abdulrazzak Habbabeh, applied for immigrant visas about a year ago, and received them about three months ago, he said. They booked their flight — which took them from Syria through Lebanon, then Dubai and finally to Orlando — about three weeks ago.
"My dad was hurt, because he was like, ‘We’re not terrorists. We’re not refugees. We’re not here to take nothing from nobody.’"
— ELI HABBABEH
Then, on Jan. 27, President Donald Trump issued an executive order: No nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations — Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia or Sudan — would be allowed into the U.S.
Chaos ensued at airports as Department of Homeland Security staff tried to comply with the order while opponents protested and judges granted emergency stays nullifying, at least temporarily, various parts of the order.
The judicial orders compelled DHS staff to release people who’d already arrived in the country and were being detained. (The administration later also walked back the ban slightly, stating that it did not apply to people with green cards.)
The airport staff members Habbabeh was able to speak with didn’t seem to know what was going on with his parents.
“We tried to have some information from the airport, but they were like, ‘We can’t give you any information,’ because they said they didn’t have any access to them,” Eli Habbabeh said. And they weren’t allowed to call.
It took almost eight hours and the intervention of U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, of Orlando — who showed up at the airport pressing DHS staff to follow the judicial order and release Habbabeh’s parents and one other green card holder who was being held along with them — before Safar and Abdulrazzak Habbabeh were released, Eli Habbabeh said.
He hadn’t seen them for six years. It was their first time in the U.S.
“They were really — my dad was hurt, because he was like, ‘We’re not terrorists. We’re not refugees. We’re not here to take nothing from nobody.’ … My mom, too — she was really stressed about everything, and scared about having to go back. But she was like, ‘Either let us go, or let us go back.’”
The executive order banning nationals from those seven Muslim-majority nations has been referred to as a “Muslim ban.”
The Habbabehs aren’t Muslim. They’re Catholic. Eli Habbabeh said he supports the president and likes the fact that he’s a businessman who could create real change. He follows Trump on social media.
The president has since said that the executive order was not intended to be a “Muslim ban.”
Opponents of the executive order pointed out that Trump had spoken of banning Muslims during his campaign, and that Rudy Giuliani, in an appearance on Fox News, said Trump had asked him to help craft the executive order for the purpose of enacting a "Muslim ban" legally.
But the order is broader than that in some senses, and narrower in others.
“Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!”
— PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, in a Tweet Jan. 29
It bans all Syrian refugees from the U.S. indefinitely, suspends all refugee entries from other countries to the U.S. for 120 days (for Muslims and non-Muslims), and bans all nationals from the seven listed countries from entering the U.S. regardless of their visa category for 90 days. It does not ban non-refugee Muslims from other countries.
It initially also banned green card holders who are nationals of the seven listed countries — preventing people who live in the U.S. legally and have homes, families and jobs here, in some cases for many years, from returning to the U.S. after what many had thought were brief trips abroad. That part of the order has been rescinded.
The order also stated that there would be exceptions for religious minorities, with Trump, amidst widespread backlash Jan. 29, specifically mentioning Christians in the following tweet: “Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!”
But there’s been no guidance on how DHS agents or customs officials are to separate out religious minorities from religious majorities.
How does someone prove his religion? And does minority status apply to non-Christian minorities in the Middle East?
Such details haven’t yet been clarified. At least six Syrian Christians have been sent back to the Middle East since the order, according to reporting from national news organizations.
And advocacy organizations have sued, saying the ban imposes an unconstitutional religious test and violates due process.
“We see how he is systematically presenting ethnic minorities, and now religious minorities, as a security threat to our nation, rather than highlighting the contributions we make to this nation."
WILFREDO RUIZ, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations
One of those organizations is the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR — the nation’s largest Muslim legal advocacy group.
CAIR representative Wilfredo Ruiz told the Palm Coast Observer that dozens of people have approached Florida CAIR offices seeking advice.
“What were are advising everybody — especially anybody who is a national from those countries or holds dual passports from one of those countries — is not to travel without first consulting an immigration attorney, or us,” he said.
CAIR sees the order as a Muslim ban — or the beginning of one, which may broaden, Ruiz said, citing Giuliani’s statement to Fox News.
“The intention of the order is to implement a Muslim ban, and this is obviously unconstitutional, and against the law,” Ruiz said. “We are now moving in a multi-platform position: in the streets, the airports and the courts. We are challenging the xenophobic series of executive orders, because we see it as part of a trend that Mr. Trump is already showing.”
Ruiz mentioned that not long before the executive order entry ban, Trump had spoken of building a wall on the border with Mexico.
“We see how he is systematically presenting ethnic minorities, and now religious minorities, as a security threat to our nation, rather than highlighting the contributions we make to this nation," Ruiz said. “We cannot let this go.”
People who support the executive order have noted that the ban is temporary — it hasn’t become clear yet what might follow it — and have called it necessary for national security.
One Facebook user, who identified herself as Heelda Yona, wrote on the Observer's Facebook page: "I'm from Iraq myself, and live in Palm Coast, and I stand strongly with what President Trump is doing! ... Nothing wrong with vetting people and having strong borders. All other countries do it; why can't we enforce our laws? And I'm a Christian. Back in Iraq, Christians are being slaughtered. My people are perishing every day, and the past administration did nothing for them!"
U.S. House Rep. Ron DeSantis, whose district includes Flagler County, has supported Trump's order.
“Defending the American people against the threat of radical Islamic terrorism is a central responsibility of the federal government, and it is clear that our national policies need to be reformed to better discharge this duty,” he wrote in a Jan. 29 Facebook post. “Recently, we have seen terrorist attacks perpetrated by refugees from Somalia (at Ohio State and in St. Cloud, Minnesota, respectively) and witnessed the conviction of an Iraqi refugee, Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan, for attempting to bomb shopping malls in Houston. It is incumbent upon the federal government to undertake adequate vetting so that those who seek to do Americans harm are not permitted to enter the United States, especially when foreigners seek to come to the United States from nations that sponsor terrorism or are hotbeds of Islamic radicalism. President Trump is right to be concerned about this, and I hope that, during the 90-day period outlined in the president’s executive order, the administration develops policies that will better protect the American people from this potent threat.”
Responding to DeSantis' statement, Ruiz said it's untrue that people are not getting adequate vetting before entering the U.S. The process for refugees can take 18-24 months.
"Defending the American people against the threat of radical Islamic terrorism is a central responsibility of the federal government and it is clear that our national policies need to be reformed to better discharge this duty."
— RON DeSANTIS, U.S. Rep. for Florida's 6th Congressional District
“The reality on the ground is, for example, that a Syrian refugee in Florida told me his process took 23 months," Ruiz said. "Another Syrian refugee, who lives in the Tampa area, his process took 27 months. … All refugees who come into this country have been examined by the DHS, by the FBI and by immigration officers. (Trump) presents this chaotic situation, like people are coming here and we know nothing about them. That is totally false.”
The executive order’s opponents have also noted that it targets countries that have not been major sources of terrorism against the West, while omitting countries whose nationals have carried out attacks on the West.
“Why these countries? Why not other Muslim countries?” Ruiz said. “I know that from those (seven) countries, he doesn’t have any business, while in other countries … Trump has hundreds of millions of dollars of investments.”
Trump’s administration has stated that the seven countries were originally identified by the DHS under the Obama administration as countries of “concern.”
Eli Habbabeh said he understands the need for security at the borders. He could get behind extra vetting. But he didn’t like how Trump went about it.
“We don’t want everyone to be let in without a background check,” he said. “I’m not against what the president’s doing; he might know what’s right for the country — but not in that way. There’s people who got their visa one or two months ago, people flying and already in the air, people who have green cards,” he said.
At least, he said, people who had already received their visas or who had green cards should have been exempted from the ban.
Ruiz suggested other ways to make Americans safer.
“You should empower the FBI, Homeland Security, and immigration to have better resources to do the processing that they are already doing — if they need extra computers, extra collaboration — but you don’t close the door," he said.
Habbabeh said he’s relieved he was able to bring his parents into the country. They’re on immigrant visas, and he hopes they’ll be able to stay.
He would like to be able to bring his 17-year-old sister and 31-year-old brother over, but it’s harder to sponsor a sibling than a parent.
They’re still in Damascus, and he worries — especially since the president’s executive order.
“It’s really stressful for me because of what’s going on over there. ... I share a lot of video for (Trump), I like him on Facebook, and I follow him on social media,” Habbabeh said. “I like some of what he wanted to do and how he’s going to make things different, but not what he’s doing right now. You can’t just hurt all these people, and put them through a rough time and a miserable time, just because you issued an order.”