In Immigration Fight, Lawyers Become Unlikely Heroes

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on January 30, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Thousands descended on America's airports this weekend, protesting an executive order signed by President Trump on Friday that banned immigrants and visitors from seven predominantly Muslim nations. Protesters came equipped with bullhorns, signs, and even, in San Francisco, a brass band.

Amid the calls of "No ban, no walls, sanctuary for all!" a remarkable chant broke out: "Thank you, lawyers!"

The Lawyers Are Ready for a Fight

Following the signing of the order, dozens of affected immigrants who had been set to join, or just visit, the United States just hours before, suddenly found themselves detained when they touched down. Their numbers included a five-year-old child, a former Army interpreter, and families fleeing the war in Syria.

But just a few feet away, thousands of protestors were demanding their release -- including hundreds of lawyers who flocked to the nation's airports, setting up makeshift legal centers in airport cafeterias, demanding, to no avail, to see detainees, and filing lawsuits on the fly. As the protests spread, #letthelawyersin began trending on Twitter.

While the protests appear to have grown spontaneously, many of the lawyers had been preparing for the fight for days. When news of the executive order leaked earlier last week, the International Refugee Assistance Project put out a call for lawyers to immediately travel to airports where refugees might be detained, in order to offer legal assistance.

"It occurred to us that there were going to be people who were traveling who would land and have their status affected while in midair," IRAP's policy director Betsy Fisher told the New York Times. IRAP was right.

The army of attorneys wasn't composed just of immigration lawyers. Litigators, nonprofit attorneys, BigLaw associates, and National Lawyers Guild observers with their signature neon hats all joined in. The ACLU scrambled to put together a template habeas petition for attorneys to use. An emergency lawsuit on behalf of two detainees in JFK resulted in an eleventh-hour stay from the EDNY, followed soon by similar orders from at least three other federal courts.

Still, confusion reigned. Immigrants were still detained, lawyers were still kept from meeting with clients, and even a delegation of congresspeople was denied access to the Customs and Border Protection offices at Washington, D.C.'s Dulles airport. Immigration agents refused to tell the congress members whether they had anyone detained and refused to allow attorneys access.

"Our best legal recourse right now is habeas petitions," Michael Lukens, pro bono director of the Capital Area Immigrants' Rights Coalition, told the Washington Post. "The problem: without getting an attorney back into secondary to get the names and countries of the people, we can't file the habeas."

On Twitter, the president attacked the media and critical senators, while saying that the hasty executive order was needed to keep "bad 'dudes'" from rushing into the country.

Meanwhile, lawyers remained at the nation's airports, ready to continue.

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