My father always wanted me to be a lawyer. Like many Muslim parents, he was thinking of a job that was safe, secure, and lacking in ostentation. So I went to law school, passed the Bar Exam in my first attempt, and was sworn in as an attorney in May 2012.
But instead of choosing a safe, secure desk job that kept me tied up in paperwork from 9am to 5pm, I chose a job in criminal defence, defending people accused of serious felony offences both in the state of Illinois and federally across the United States. I spent my days with (alleged) gangsters, robbers, and murderers, and I was honoured to do so. I chose to be the kind of lawyer that fights.
When Donald Trump signed an executive order that has widely come to be known as the Muslim ban, I was at a loss for what to do. I had been trained to fight the good fight, but without any knowledge of immigration law, what was I supposed to do? My strength lay in defending sexual assault cases, not treading through the minefield of complex immigration laws.
After a day or so, watching news stories trickle in about an Oscar nominee unable to enter the country for the Academy Awards and a five-year old boy held in questioning while his anxious mother waited with protesters, I decided that I could no longer sit on the sidelines. I had to put my strengths to use. It may not have been precisely what my father envisioned for me, but neither of my parents have ever held me back from righteous fights.
My friend Elleni and I had attended the Women’s March in Chicago the weekend before, marching down Michigan Avenue with signs in our hands to the federal courthouse.
One week later, on January 29, each armed with a satchel containing a computer, tablet, adaptor, and some legal pads, we drove to O’Hare International Airport to offer our services as attorneys.
Terminal 5, by the McDonald’s. These were the directions I had seen on Twitter or Snapchat. They are excellent sites and apps for real-time updates on grassroots events and scrolling endlessly through them was the form my anxiety had taken since Trump had assumed office.
Sure enough, several tables were set up and attorneys were divided up in stations. Some were scouring social media to get updates on what was happening at other airports across the country and to coordinate procedures. Some were working on declaratory injunctions on behalf of those detained, while others were making signs. The woman heading the operation was speaking to a CNN reporter.
The first thing I noticed – because Elleni elbowed me excitedly and hissed it in my ear – was that the vast majority of the volunteer attorneys were women and a significant number of them were women of colour.
“It’s always women,” Elleni murmured to me. “We are always the one that rush in to help and actually get things done.”
We milled about for a few minutes, unsure what to do. The assembled attorneys were polite, but busy. Elleni and I made ourselves name tags, scrawling LAWYER with a pink marker, and tried to discern where we were needed. We made our way to a small table and, desperate to be productive, Elleni used the time to teach me one of her skills – drafting petitions for emergency guardianship of minors, in case a detainee wanted to name a guardian for his or her children in the event of deportation.
One of the female attorneys from a national firm noticed us and suggested we look at the intake sheets. She printed us a copy each and we skimmed it. This was an intake sheet – a means of gathering client information – and it was something I could easily master.
What Elleni and I realised as the night went on was that our strength lay in the fact that we belonged to solo and small firms. Elleni was a solo practitioner with one associate; I worked for a small firm of three attorneys, a paralegal, and a legal assistant. We were used to vertical representation, which means handling a client’s problem from the beginning until the resolution. We were used to having people rely on us, thinking fast and on our feet, and dealing with stressed, upset people. And, we were used to intakes.
As well-meaning as all of the assembled attorneys were, the intake sheet was a disaster. There were two parties that were represented: the person possibly being detained (who we would likely not be able to speak to) and their friend or family member waiting for them at the terminal. The questions for each of the two parties were interwoven in such a manner that the conversation did not flow properly, which Elleni and I noticed immediately. It took us mere minutes to reorganise the form and make it our own.
Rather than wait at the attorney tables for people to approach us, Elleni and I decided to walk back and forth between Gates A and B, looking for travelers’ family and friends who fit a certain profile. There are seven countries currently named in the Executive Order, but we knew it was likely that overzealous Customs & Border Patrol agents would overstep their bounds and possibly detain others that looked either Muslim or brown.
“Let’s walk around the airport and profile people,” I remember telling Elleni as I rolled my eyes.
She laughed as we set off. We looked for people who looked Arab, and were likely waiting for their Arab family members or friends; we looked for South Asians, and we even looked for Hispanics and Latinos.
It is not unusual for Mexican nationals entering the United States on a visa, for example, to be placed in secondary inspections and held for lengthy questioning. A visa, after all, is only a request to be allowed entrance – it is not a guarantee.
There are certain red flags that can trigger Customs & Border Patrol holding a person and ultimately refusing them entry. This can include recent arrests and criminal convictions, illnesses, and mental health concerns, to name a few.
As Elleni and I walked through the airport, we found several families who had been waiting for more than six hours for a family member or a friend coming in from Mexico on a valid visa. We went through our revised checklist, gathering all pertinent information and quickly realising that none of the traditional red flags were indicated.
All the information we gathered was immediately given to the attorneys working by the McDonald’s. It was entered into a database by some attorneys, and then others began the work of reaching out to Customs & Border Patrol.
We patrolled the international gates for several hours, walking over to various sections of seating every now and then to ask, “Has anyone been waiting for more than two hours for family or friends?”
We had immediately learned that this was the most effective way to frame the question; attorneys understood the ramifications of the word ‘detained,’ but many others did not. Waiting for longer than usual, however, was something people understood very well.
Elleni and I coordinated to complete roughly 11 intakes of individuals that had been held for more than five hours. There was one Nigerian green card holder married to a United States citizen whose friends had been waiting for three hours. There were several Hispanic families who had been waiting since noon for their family on a flight from Mexico City. It was well past 7pm by the time we passed their information on to the immigration attorneys.
What was most disturbing to me, however, was the story of five Jordanian minors traveling on valid visas with their citizen stepmother. They had not emerged after de-boarding their flight from Amman, Jordan.
As I patrolled the gates, I noticed an older man sitting in the corner, keeping to himself. He did not engage with us when we walked by several times, asking if anyone had been waiting for long. My intuition told me, however, to approach him and inquire as to how long he had been waiting. That was when I learned that those five children had been held for more than six hours. He was their travel agent and had simply presumed the flight was late.
Trying not to alarm him, I gathered information as efficiently as I could and handed it over to the immigration attorneys leading the operation.
Elleni and I worked diligently, usually step in step, but occasionally separating, against the backdrop of a gathering crowd of protesters.
We took the time to return to the families we’d already spoken to, offering them comfort and limited reassurance. As we were not immigration attorneys, we did not offer specific legal advice. However, our general knowledge of immigration, as well as the procedures in place, was enough to keep the families calm and reassured that a large team of volunteers was working on behalf of their loved ones.
The earnest chants of “This is what America looks like!” certainly helped boost spirits.
When we left, the children from Jordan had still not been released. I was tired, but sleep does not come easily during a Trump administration.
Elleni and I groused that he had been in office for only two weeks and every single one of our weekends had been consumed with protests. We resolved to keep our social calendars light for the next four years so we could be on hand to either demonstrate or offer legal services. We also agreed to learn more about immigration law and to practice drafting petitions for a writ of habeas corpus, one of the uses of which is to challenge the illegal detention in immigration custody.
I scrolled Twitter that night, addicted to the false feeling of productivity that came with absorbing news in real-time. I saw a picture of Rahm Emanuel speaking to the brother of a man removed from O’Hare and sent back to Jordan.
Jordan was not one of the countries named in the Executive Order. I scanned tweets and Facebook messages, looking for anything about the Jordanian children who I had brought to the attention of the rest of the attorney task force.
Finally, I received confirmation from the head of CAIR-Chicago that the children and their stepmother had all been released later that night. Their father in Phoenix was overwhelmed with relief and gratitude.
I forced myself to shut down my phone and head to bed. These fights will continue and expand on multiple fronts. For those of us who have grown used to a life in the trenches, we welcome the challenge. We remain in our element.
Photos and videos by the author.
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