Inside the battle for immigrant rights at Dulles airport

A crowd welcomes passengers as they exit customs at Dulles International Airport in Virginia. CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress

DULLES AIRPORT, VIRGINIA — At first, the crowd huddled around the international arrivals terminal at Washington Dulles International Airport Sunday night was nothing short of boisterous.

One of dozens of groups that descended on airports across the country to protest President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban over the weekend, their goal was to voice support for refugees and green card holders who were suddenly detained by officials as they arrived in the United States.

The strategy in Virginia appeared to be one of radical welcome. As a round of arrivals emerged from customs and filed out into the terminal, the mass lifted signs reading “Muslims welcome!” and chanted “Welcome home!” Green card holders and bewildered passengers alike smiled and pumped their fists as they walked past, pushing baggage-laden carts while demonstrators roared their approval. A small child led a rousing call-and-response rendition of “This is what democracy looks like!” as a Muslim woman beamed down at her, her face framed by a hijab streaked with red, white, and blue.

“Let them see their lawyers! Let them see their lawyers!” they bellowed, voices tinged with anger.

But as the passengers filed off, the tone changed, and the demonstrators turned again toward the empty arrivals door. This time they launched into a very different refrain, shouted over and over by what felt like the entire terminal.

“Let them see their lawyers! Let them see their lawyers!” they bellowed, voices tinged with anger.

Volunteer immigration lawyers hold signs asking for information

Their frustration has been boiling for days. After Trump signed an executive order on Friday that prevents people from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States, several federal judges — including one in Virginia — issued rulings staying aspects of the order late Saturday night and Sunday morning, mandating that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials grant lawyers access to those detained under the ban.

But for reasons that remain unclear, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials at Dulles have refused to comply with the court order, blocking immigration lawyers from entering the customs area. Of the 500,000 green card holders initially at risk due to the ban, lawyers haven’t been able to represent any that come through the Virginia airport.

Nonetheless, an ever-growing team of volunteer lawyers refused to leave the terminal, setting up a makeshift workstation just behind the demonstrators. On Sunday, two volunteers staffed a “Free Legal Help” table next to a gaggle of attorneys sprawled out on the floor nearby, most crouched over laptops and surrounded by small mountains of donated food. Some wore suits, others hoodies, but all donned stickers with their names and legal expertise hastily scrawled across them (“Immigration lawyer!” read one, in smeared blue ink).

Assembled by the International Refugee Assistance Project and through social media, members of hodgepodge team hailed from a number of different legal groups based in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. Several held signs offering their services to people as they left the terminal, while others quietly approached recent arrivals to ask if they knew of anyone still being detained in customs. Airport police allowed them to work uninhibited, answering questions and lending help when possible.

But whenever teams of lawyers attempted to approach CBP to meet with people being detained — as permitted by the court order — they were rebuffed.

“We can’t talk to them,” said Mirriam Seddiq, a Maryland-based immigration attorney and the group’s appointed press contact. “We can’t do anything.”

A group of volunteer lawyers listen to instructions in Dulles airport. Assembled through social media, some had been there for hours. CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress

Seddiq said that lawyers have attempted to broach the subject with CBP officials on at least three occasions, to no avail. Representatives either told them they weren’t permitted to speak, or gave them the number of the CBP’s public affairs office.

“I tweeted out that number,” Seddiq said, smiling as she noted that thousands of people promptly flooded the line with calls.

Even elected officials are being denied access. Although New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker was allowed to speak with CBP on Saturday evening, four other lawmakers were barred entry on Sunday. At best, Seddiq said, officials appear to expedite the process when an elected official is involved: she recalled that when Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) personally asked about the status of a person being detained, the person was suddenly released moments later.

“They would rather release people than let us back there,” she said. “I even heard a story of a U.S. citizen who was held for more than an hour and a half.”

The lack of access means that first-hand details of CBP’s actions — such as who is being detained, and whether people are being transferred to other locations — remain something of a mystery. Instead, lawyers are relying on bits of information they gather from people behind the barrier, conveyed via a WhatsApp messaging service, or from those they question after they leave.

Stories abound of detainees being badgered with “rude” questions or asked to reveal their social media accounts, including American citizens. Others report people being taken directly to detention, or moved from “secondary” detention — a normal holding area for some visa holders — to a third location separate from everyone else. Some exited customs in tears.

“Yesterday was horrific,” Seddiq said.

Rev. Madelyn Campbell, a local Unitarian Universalist minister, joins the protest at Dulles. She brought the lawyers food, noting the Biblical God commands followers to welcome “the stranger.” CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress

Then there are the troubling accounts of people taken into custody overseas. Recent arrivals regaled attorneys with harrowing tales of people being disallowed from boarding flights or pulled off planes by American officials during layovers in other countries.

“You should be in Frankfurt,” one lawyer was told.

Another attorney, Dan Press, noted that things appeared to improve on Sunday after White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said the ban doesn’t apply to green card holders, and when Department of Homeland Security (DHS) head John Kelly issued an order declaring the same. Some people with special immigrant visas — especially those who work as interpreters — were also reportedly let through.

He said these changes occurred after lawyers pressured the U.S. Attorney’s office, which is representing CBP — a victory he attributed both to the legal teams and to the wave of protests in cities and airports that swept the country over the weekend.

“It’s the lawyers doing this, and the demonstrators,” he said, nodding at the chatting mass across the terminal. “DHS blinked.”

But the CBP continues to violate the court order, and lawyers remain dedicated to getting officials to comply. Their work is bolstered by local immigration advocacy groups such as the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, which added staff for a hotline dedicated to helping immigrants know their rights.

They don’t expect a resolution to come soon, nor for the work to be easy. Several attorneys rubbed away bloodshot eyes after hours without sleep. Most were subsisting entirely off of food and coffee supplied by demonstrators and local clergy.

A makeshift legal aid station for green card holders at Dulless. CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress

But the situation, Press said, demands action.

“I’m here because I think this ban is an assault on our American values and our Constitution, and I think we can do some good here,” he said. “And I think we have done some good.”

Asked how long the legal team intends to remain in the terminal working on behalf of immigrants, several lawyers gave the same answer: “As long as it takes.”

As they spoke, the crowd behind them restarted their chant: “Let them see their lawyers!”