When Hassan Ahmad got to Dulles International Airport in the afternoon of Saturday, January 28, 2017, he couldn’t have imagined he would be a witness to active resistance against a newly inaugurated president. The day before, newly-sworn in President Donald Trump signed an executive order on immigration suspending travel by refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. That executive order, Trump claimed, would keep out “radical Islamic terrorists,” even as it prioritized entry for Christians and people of other minority faiths over Muslims.
Ahmad, an immigration lawyer, sensed the president’s executive order meant refugees and nationals of the seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — would face trouble at international airports around the world. Closer to his home in Northern Virginia, Ahmad considered the possibility that those on their way and U.S. legal permanent residents, known as green card holders, from the targeted countries could also be refused entry in the confusion.
“I went [to Dulles] with the idea of being able to represent people who were caught by the travel ban,” Ahmad said in a phone interview. Through his email listservs, he signed up for a Saturday evening shift to help represent people flying into the airport, but arrived in the afternoon to catch a press conference by then-Virginia Gov. Terry Mcauliffe (D) and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring over allegations of detained green card holders.
Two Yemeni families — all with green cards — became emblematic of the chaos that came to airports nationwide. Seven members of the Al Murisi family were inbound on flights that took off Friday, January 27. They were prevented from entering Dulles. Brothers Tareq and Ammar Aziz, ages 19 and 21 were on the same plane. The brothers were sent to Addis Abba, Ethiopia where they were stranded for days. The U.S. Department of Justice later allowed both families to enter because they were already traveling when the ban was imposed. The families also filed lawsuits in federal court challenging the ban.
“There were a whole lot of other people who showed up as well,” Ahmad said. “No one knew exactly what to expect and that goes not only for us lawyers and advocates, but also for the government personnel on the scene.”
By Saturday evening, hundreds of attorneys and activists outraged at Trump’s executive order were at the airport, reminding those arriving that the United States was, in fact, an open and welcoming place for immigrants and refugees.
Sirine Shebaya, the senior staff attorney with Muslim Advocates and board member of Dulles Justice Coalition, brought her husband and young children — ages three and four months — with her on Saturday because the executive order “was really more awful than anything I had really imagined possible,” she recounted.
“It was so explicitly a Muslim ban,” Shebaya said. “As a civil rights attorney who also has immigration experience who also speaks Arabic, I couldn’t stay home.”
When she got there, Shebaya said she and one or two dozen lawyers tried to track down U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents, but were initially unable to do so since they “apparently retreated behind the wall” to avoid confrontations with the growing number of activists.
She also tracked down people coming off flights to figure out what was happening behind the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) partition that separates travelers. “I was struck by the fear in their eyes,” Shebaya said, referring to people who were waiting to pick up loved ones from the airport.
“We were trying to both help family members there, draw attention to the chaos that was going on, and identify people who needed legal assistance,” Shebaya said. Ahmad who also helped to represent people, took various Facebook Live videos documenting the outpouring of support by activists who chanted, “Let them see their lawyers!”
Other civil rights lawyers and advocates roused by the executive order showed up in similar fashion at international airports nationwide and around the world. Sara Elizabeth Dill, an international criminal law and human rights attorney, coordinated from Dulles with overseas lawyers in London and Amsterdam who reported seeing issues at airports in their countries.
“We even had lawyers saying, ‘Do you want me to book a flight so that I can be behind the scenes… to assist people?'”
“Overseas, I think we had between 1500 and 2000 lawyers at airports and at major cities around the globe who said ‘let us know what you need — we’ll go to the airports.'” Dill told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. “We even had lawyers saying, ‘Do you want me to book a flight so that I can be behind the scenes and come in and go through customs to see what’s happening and be there to assist people?'”
“We had a lot of lawyers volunteering who had no immigration experience but they were literally sitting on the floor by the baggage claim at the airport with their laptops, researching injunction issues [and] doing the legal research to help support what we were doing,” Dill said. “Or even getting coffee. Getting supplies. Things like that.”
At one point, Dulles looked like a “functional law firm,” Ahmad reminisced. People brought in electric power strips, phone cords, and printers so lawyers could print out the G-28 form off the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which allowed them to represent clients held up behind the customs line through their families who were waiting in the airport to receive them.
“We were never permitted to meet with any of our actual clients so we’d meet with their family members and try to talk to CBP and of course we were completely stonewalled,” Ahmad said. One of his clients was an Iraqi translator for the U.S. Army waiting for his wife and two children. The family all had green cards. After being held for five hours, CBP allowed the family to leave around 10 p.m. that Saturday.
“I would be on calls on Skype at 2 a.m. coordinating with lawyers overseas and they’re headed to the airport so it was chaotic during that time,” Dill recounted. “It was people sleeping on airport chairs.”
Two separate but small victories took place that night and the following day. A federal judge in New York blocked part of the executive order Saturday evening, ruling that the federal government could not remove people affected by the ban who had arrived at airports after the order was issued. The judge ruled that the executive order “violates their rights to Due Process and Equal Protection guaranteed by the United States Constitution.” The following day, a federal judge in Boston, Massachusetts blocked part of the order in a case brought by pair of college professors who held green cards. The ruling ordered that the government could not “detain or remove” people who arrived legally from the seven countries or had their refugee applications approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency (USCIS).
U.S. District Court Judge James Robart temporarily halted the ban nationwide on February 3, ruling that states that filed lawsuits “have met their burden of demonstrating that they face immediate and irreparable injury as a result of the signing and implementation of the executive order.” A federal appeals court rejected the federal government’s request to resume the ban two days later. By February 9, a three-judge panel in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the reinstatement of the travel ban, stating, “The Government has pointed to no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the Order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States.” In all, at least 746 people were “detained or processed” under the first executive order.
The federal government issued a revised travel ban on March 6, which revoked the first ban and started a slightly different ban on March 16. The second ban suspended immigration from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for 90 days. Like the first ban, it also suspended refugee resettlement for 120 days, and cut refugee resettlement by over 50 percent. The revised travel ban faced challenges in various courts through the month of June. The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) allowed the implementation of the temporary ban, with an exception made for people with “any bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the Untied States,” or people with family connections in the United States, admitted students at U.S. universities, and workers with job offers in the country.
In September, hours before key portions of the second ban expired, the Trump administration pushed out a third ban that restricted travel of nationals from eight countries: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen (five countries from the previous ban), Chad, and North Korea. Certain Venezuelan officials were also targeted. Six of these countries are Muslim-majority, and this ban is indefinite. In December, the Supreme Court granted the Trump administration’s request to reinstate the ban while litigation continued. A SCOTUS decision could come as early as April 2018, though it could also come down in June.
Chaos followed each of the three bans, but it was that first weekend’s chaos which birthed the Dulles Justice Coalition, allowing volunteers like Ahmad, Shebaya, Dill, and other people from legal non-profits and law firms to come together to form a rapid-response legal defense.
“The coalition grew and was formed and we were able to get some semi-permanent space under Baggage Claim 13,” Ahmad said. “After that, we set up a thing where people can sign up for virtual shifts to be on the ground.”
“In the aftermath of the Muslim ban when things calmed down and everything was in court…we have email and listservs, and can coordinate people,” Dill said. “Now we’re set up so we can be first responders to everything that comes up.”
For Ahmad, one of the biggest concerns about the Trump administration’s multiple bans wasn’t just about the people directly affected at the airports. He’s since been worried about the people who are allowed to come to the United States but are too “afraid” to be the next ones flagged for hours-long detention.
“There are so many other people who are affected by it because they are afraid — they don’t know if their countries are going to be put on that list,” Ahmad said. “They don’t know whether or not that despite the fact they have this legal status and as bans got progressively more complex like having ‘bona fide relationships’, it added to the confusion. When you have that type of confusion and it’s poorly rolled out, the uncertainty exacerbates that level of fear and it just creates a chaotic situation.”
“The Muslim ban really didn’t do anything,” Dill said. As an attorney who formerly focused on terrorism, she said that the various revised travel bans are an extension of Americans’ irrational fear of all Muslims in the wake of the September 2001 attacks. She referenced people put on no-fly lists “for no reason whatsoever,” others who face “so much scrutiny” just to get visas, and people who undergo the arduous asylum process.
“If anything, it made our national security system worse because it basically said to Muslims around the world, the US is discriminatory,” Dill explained. “It was devastating. Rather than putting resources on actually fighting terrorism as it exists, it was this propaganda and we’ve seen that in the increase in hate crimes against Muslims… In terms of national security, this is not the proper way to go about it. And it took resources away from the actual national security that the U.S. should be concerned about.”
Elements of the Muslim bans have continued to affect numerous people, including travelers who want to come into the country on medical grounds, Shebaya pointed out. In one of her current caseloads of clients, an Iranian man with Stage 4 cancer, was denied a visa to get treatment at Stanford University earlier this month.
It is now clear that there was uneven implementation of the first bans at airports with some CBP employees violating court orders. Between January 27 and February 3, the first week following the executive order, senior managers at the CBP agency were “caught by surprise” by the administration, with some issuing instructions to certain airlines not to board certain passengers, with the potential for fines up to $50,000 and the “refusal of permission for the flight to land,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported.
Yet there were also thousands of people — including lawyers, advocates, pilots and even CBP agents — who extended miles of compassion for strangers they had never met. For example, there were the Port of Seattle commissioner and immigration lawyer who on January 28 literally ran after an Emirates airplane set to leave for Dubai with a Sudanese national and a Yemeni man who were told they couldn’t enter the United States. Saying that a federal order to temporarily halt the Trump administration’s executive order was on the way, the lawyer was able to “stop the plane from taking off,” Seattle Times reported at the time. CBP personnel at other ports used their own funds to buy food and water for travelers, Politico reported. And as Dill noted, overseas lawyers who themselves were sleeping in airport chairs, pooled money to purchase a hotel room for an elderly Iranian couple “so they could shower and sleep in a bed.”
Despite the frustration over an administration that appears to target Muslims and communities of color, all three lawyers are hopeful that the work they helped get off the ground with the Dulles Justice Coalition will not “fizzle out and die,” Shebaya said.
“We now have the ability to mobilize lawyers quickly and do it in an organized fashion and respond to any crisis that this administration put forward,” Dill said. “That was something we were all very grateful for…We all stay in touch.”