Hundreds of attorneys descended on U.S. airports all over the country this weekend to offer free legal help to the travelers and family members of loved ones detained under President Trump’s executive order.
By Saturday afternoon, arrival terminals in airports from Dulles, Va., to Chicago to San Francisco were being turned into makeshift hubs for legal aid. Lawyers assembled conference-style tables in restaurants and gathered around electrical outlets with their laptops awaiting work. Some held signs near arrivals gates introducing themselves to families in need.
What began as a slapdash effort soon became more structured, particularly at Terminal 4 of John F. Kennedy International Airport in Jamaica, N.Y., the symbolic center of protest activity on Saturday and Sunday.
It started after the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella group for immigrant advocacy organizations, began coordinating to assist clients already known to be en route to JFK, people involved in the effort said.
Social justice groups also circulated calls for help. “There’s been a call for LEGAL support at #JFK airport,” the New York City chapter of Black Lives Matter tweeted Saturday to its approximately 10,000 followers. “If you’re a lawyer folks on the ground are requesting you.”
Soon, lawyers had set up a base outside the terminal’s Central Diner restaurant. Another group, the International Refugee Assistance Project, began divvying up cases. Most frequently, lawyers worked to file habeas corpus petitions in federal court challenging the detention of specific individuals.
The spontaneous rush to help, spurred in part by social media, echoed the protests that arose at numerous airport terminals, cities and the White House opposing Trump’s ban on travelers from seven countries.
“The organic outpouring of support has been extraordinary,” Deborah Axt, of the social justice group Make the Road New York, said to reporters Sunday. “Attorneys are out en masse mobilizing like organizers.”
The immigrant rights community braced for a legal fight with the Trump administration over the order banning entry to the United States for refugees, migrants and foreign nationals from seven mostly Muslim countries. Trump insisted in a statement Sunday that it was not a Muslim ban but one designed to protect the nation. His Department of Homeland Security said that “less than one percent” of international air travelers Saturday were “inconvenienced” by the order.
Late Saturday, the American Civil Liberties Union won a nationwide temporary injunction against the order from a federal judge in Brooklyn. That stay was followed by similar decisions from judges in Massachusetts, Virginia and Washington state.
But advocates warn that those court orders are not being evenly enforced.
“The last 48 hours have been really full of chaos, the sense of the federal government completely deciding not to comply with the Constitution, and on top of that, not providing guidance to the field,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.
“We continue to hear disturbing reports of people being detained or about to be deported despite the order. . . . This is an all-hands-on-deck moment.”
That is where volunteer lawyers are playing a part.
A scarcity of information from DHS continues to stymie these efforts, advocates said. As of midday Sunday, authorities still had not produced a list of people affected by the order as required by the Brooklyn judge who stayed the deportations.
This meant lawyers had no choice but to scan arrival terminals looking for affected families.
“The way we’re even identifying most of the people in detention is by holding signs in Arabic and Farsi outside the gate,” said Becca Heller, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project. “Usually, the person is in touch with their relative via cellphone.”
There was also confusion about whether the order applied to U.S. green-card holders following conflicting statements from the White House. This was one of the first questions legal advocates asked after Trump signed the order, said Michele Lampach, the executive director of Unlocal, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to immigrants.
“Within a few hours, there was a plan to head to JFK,” she said in a phone interview Sunday. “After all, [clients] were already on planes. . . . We wanted to see if we’d be able to get in and represent people.” Lampach said there is “not a lot of precedent” for this kind of emergency coordination among legal groups.
An email circulating in the Washington-area legal community illustrated the hardship at Washington Dulles International Airport, where lawyers were still being prevented from talking to detainees as of Sunday afternoon in contravention of a court order.
“Things at Dulles are worse than we expected,” wrote Michael Lukens, pro bono director of the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.
“Our best legal recourse right now is habeas petitions. . . . The problem: without getting an attorney back into secondary to get the names and countries of the people, we can’t file the habeas,” he said.
Volunteer attorneys set up makeshift offices on the floor beneath an airport escalator, beside a stack of pizza boxes.
Attorney Mariam Masumi said her clients, a family from Iraq, including four children, were expected to arrive Sunday evening. They are green-card holders supposed to be allowed in, but she was anxious. “I’m hoping they’d have access to me,” Masumi said. Late Sunday night, she said, the family had made it through safely.
Amber Murray, a lawyer with No One Left Behind, came to Dulles to make sure three families were allowed inside the country. They are traveling from Afghanistan on special visas after working as translators for the United States in that country.
Murray, who speaks Arabic, came, she said, “so that nobody is discriminated against just because of their religion. It goes against the core American values.”
“Everybody hates lawyers until you need one, that’s what I always say,” she said.
As of late Sunday, Customs and Border Patrol officials were still refusing to provide information to lawyers as well as four local members of Congress.
“Are people being detained?” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) asked one officer, J. Damskey, a member of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority police. “How can you enforce the law if you’re not enforcing a judge’s order?”
As Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) spoke of America as “a haven of refuge,” one of a smattering of vocal opponents who support Trump’s order interrupted.
“And people weren’t being blown up in airports,” said Kelley Anne Finn, of Manassas, Va. “I don’t want my 19-year-old to be blown up at the airport!”
Connolly said he was happy to see her expressing herself.
“He doesn’t hate Muslims. He doesn’t hate anybody. He’s trying to protect us,” Finn said later of the president.