SEATTLE — A group of lawyers and software developers wanted to find a 21st-century way to connect people flying into the United States from the countries affected by President Trump’s contested travel ban with volunteer attorneys on the ground.
And now, there’s an app for that.
AirportLawyer.org, a website whipped up by a team of programmers over the weekend while much of America was watching the Super Bowl, can link travelers landing at U.S. airports with free legal help to maneuver through whatever trouble they might find as they try to clear Customs and Border Protection.
The app, which went live Monday, is being used by volunteer lawyers at airports including Baltimore-Washington International Marshall, Dulles International, Denver International and Seattle-Tacoma International, with other major airports expected to join.
In the turbulent days since Jan. 27, when Trump signed his executive order banning refugees and other travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries — and before a federal judge issued a stay of the ban — thousands of people have been detained or have run into trouble clearing customs at U.S. airports.
That has prompted volunteer lawyers to set up temporary shop at international-arrival terminals, working around the clock and waving placards announcing “Free Lawyer.” Most have no way of knowing who is arriving from countries affected by Trump’s ban, except for information they gather in conversations with anxious family members nearby.
That dilemma spurred Seattle lawyers Greg McLawsen, Takao Yamada and Tahmina Watson to team up with software developers to create a tech solution: an app.
At AirportLawyer.org, travelers or their family members can upload personal information and travel plans, including arrival date, time and airport. That information is then securely shared with volunteer lawyers who can track the arrivals and meet the travelers.
“Those of us at the airport will know who’s coming in, and we’d be better prepared with information to work on their behalf,” said Yamada, who has been volunteering his legal services at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He is also a co-founder of a Seattle tech start-up.
With the information that immigrants and other travelers provide through the website, volunteer lawyers may be better able to answer family members’ questions about why, for example, an immigrant whose flight landed at noon hadn’t cleared customs screening five hours later.
They may also be able to get word to Customs and Border Protection officers that attorneys are available to answer questions, provide documentation and find interpreters, if necessary, the lawyers say.
Trump’s ban left thousands of travelers stranded around the world. On Friday, U.S. District Judge James L. Robart reversed Trump’s order, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit was set to hear arguments Tuesday evening.
A decision — either way — could shake things up once again, McLawsen said.
“We believe that through the rest of the week, while the stay is in place, people will be coming in,” he said. “If I were one of them, I’d be jumping on a plane right now.”
While Robart’s order helped ease travel for many, lawyers say some clients still aren’t being allowed to board airplanes overseas and are being detained for long stretches after arriving at U.S. airports.
Amid all the uncertainty, McLawsen said, he received a message Friday from a colleague at Clio, a British Columbia-based legal-data-management company, asking how they might help.
McLawsen got in touch with Yamada, who had begun getting calls from worried family members and lawyers asking if he could use his contacts at the Seattle airport to check on one arriving passenger or another.
Clio then connected the lawyers with New York-based legal-software firm Neota Logic. The team worked over the weekend to create the app in 48 hours.
“Two of the scariest things for people waiting at the airport are not knowing what’s going on with their loved ones, and if something is going on, not knowing what to do about it,” Yamada said. “We can help them find out and get them some help.”