PHILADELPHIA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (WPVI) --Two Syrian families who landed at Philadelphia International Airport Saturday morning were put on a flight back home. One of the those families was expected by relatives in the Lehigh Valley.
UPDATE: ACLU: Immigrants detained at Philadelphia International Airport to be released Sunday
"I'm beside myself. I'm thinking this is a prank, this is not real," said Tawfik Assali of Allentown.
After more than a decade of waiting, piles of paperwork and thousands of dollars, the Assalis were excited for the arrival of their extended family members, who were moving from a war-torn Syria to the states. The group included Tawfik Assali's parents and two siblings.
"I'm sad. I've been waiting for them for three years. I woke up at 6 just to go there," said Tawfik Assali.
But after an 18-hour flight, with stops in several countries, the group would only walk on American soil for mere hours before being sent back. The Assalis tell Action News their relatives were detained by Homeland Security and forbidden from making any phone calls. The controversial move is a result of President Donald Trump's executive order temporarily banning immigrants and visa holders from seven Muslim-majority countries.
"First I was in shock because I didn't think this applied to us or to them being legal," said Sarah Assali of Allentown.
Backlash from citizens and local elected officials was swift, with dozens of protesters expressing their outrage at Philadelphia International Airport.
"It's definitely important to me because I'm a son of an immigrant. My family came to this country because we believe in the values of America," said Edwin Santana of West Philadelphia.
Attendees included Gov. Tom Wolf, Sen. Bob Casey, Congressman Bob Brady and Mayor Jim Kenney.
"I'm very proud to be Syrian. If he wants to kick me out because I'm Syrian, I don't mind. But let me be proud to be American, too," said Ghassn Assali of Allentown.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney released the following statement:
"I am sickened by reports that federal officials, without knowledge or cooperation of PHL Airport staff, detained and then turned away two Syrian families. By several accounts, these families waited months to obtain the proper documentation so they could come to our country legally. And still, they were sent back to a war-torn nation that has used chemical warfare against its own people. The Trump administration very well may have just given these families a death sentence.
Banning immigrants and refugees is not only unjustifiably cruel, it also puts Americans at home and serving abroad at great risk. By refusing to allow entry to any immigrants from these seven nations, even those who have helped American troops as interpreters and fixers, we are enabling anti-American radicalization and endangering the lives of many.
History has taught us that dark moments like this occur when we allow fear to silence our compassion and better judgement. Our city has welcomed approximately 260 refugees in recent years from these now-banned nations. We must speak out strongly against this executive order so that these new Philadelphians' friends and families can also find safe harbor in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection."
We reached out to Philadelphia International Airport for comment, but have not heard back at this time.