Encinitas student, detained 23 hours at LAX and then deported, returns to U.S.

Sahar Muranovic’s hands trembled as she waited for her sister.

The 27-year-old scanned the crowd Sunday morning, Feb. 5, at Los Angeles International Airport, hoping that her family’s anxious, weeklong ordeal — which began when her older sister was detained, then deported — would soon come to an end.

Television cameras crowded around Muranovic. Her sister’s friend fiddled with Facebook Live, ready to broadcast the reunion to friends and family scattered across the globe. Muranovic stood silently as she clutched a bouquet of flowers.

“Oh my God,” she said suddenly, her hand covering her mouth. “Is that her?”

Muranovic ran down the terminal, wrapping her sister in a hug. Eight days after she was barred from entering the U.S. and forced back to Vienna, Sara Yarjani had returned.

Yarjani, an Iranian graduate student, was among those caught in a confusing legal limbo after President Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. He signed the order Jan. 27, about seven hours before Yarjani landed in Los Angeles on a flight from Oslo.

Yarjani — who arrived with a valid two-year student visa — was detained for 23 hours as her family frantically sought help from the American Civil Liberties Union and attorneys stationed at the airport. Calls and emails to customs officers got nowhere, even after a federal judge in New York issued a stay on deportations of those detained. Armed customs agents ultimately escorted Yarjani to a plane bound for Vienna, where she had been visiting family.

The days since have become a legal flurry, as attorneys across the country petitioned various federal judges to intervene. Perhaps the most significant ruling came Friday, Feb. 3, when Judge James L. Robart issued a temporary restraining order against Trump’s travel ban, effective nationwide.

As soon as the ruling came down, Muranovic said, her phone began buzzing with messages.

“Have you seen this?” friends wrote. “Get her on a flight right now.”

Yarjani’s family scrambled to find her a flight back, her sister said, worried that the window that was temporarily opened by the judge’s order would soon be shut.

Yarjani, 35, came to the U.S. in September 2015 to study holistic health at the California Institute for Human Science in Encinitas. Although her family is Iranian, Yarjani said in an interview last week that she is a permanent resident of Austria and has lived outside Iran for most of the last two decades. She returned to Vienna over winter break to visit her family.

The days after Yarjani’s deportation were stressful and scary for her family, her sister said. Muranovic, who lives in Vancouver, Wash., said she hasn’t been able to sleep or eat, unsure whether her sister would be able to return.

Muranovic caught an early-morning flight from Portland, Ore., to Los Angeles for her sister’s arrival, “just to make sure she’s OK.”

“I’m still nervous,” she said before the flight landed shortly after noon. “I don’t know if they’ll change the rules suddenly, if customs doesn’t comply.”

Muranovic, who is married to a U.S. citizen and holds a green card, said the entire episode has made her rethink her own plans to travel outside the country. She won’t do it, she said. She’s too afraid that she wouldn’t be allowed to return.

When asked if that fear spread beyond traveling, Muranovic quickly listed why she loves her life in America: an “amazing support system” of friends and her husband, their two dogs and cat, their city. But she also described a scene from just a few days ago, when a Lyft driver asked her where she was from.

“I was too scared to say Iran, so I said Austria,” Muranovic said. “I don’t want to tell anyone I’m from Iran.”

As Muranovic hugged her sister Sunday, reporters crowded around them, peppering Yarjani with questions. Yarjani said she passed through customs without any issues this time, adding that she recognized some of the same officials who detained and deported her eight days before.

The sisters kept their arms wrapped around each other as a tearful Yarjani thanked the lawyers, her friends and her school for their help.

“Whenever I was in Europe ... if ever anybody criticized America, I would be the one defending it and saying, ‘You know, whatever you say, I feel that some of the greatest, most beautiful, most accomplished people also live in that land,’” she said. “From everything I’ve seen with the love and support from last week, that’s even more true.”

As Yarjani and her sister slowly moved toward the airport’s doors, pushing their luggage through a swarm of television cameras, someone cheered from a nearby restaurant. The din of the terminal was quickly replaced by applause, welcoming Yarjani home.

Kate Mather is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune. Los Angeles Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this story.

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