Over the weekend, in the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order banning refugees and restricting immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, lawyers across the nation “got the bat signal,” said volunteer attorney Kathleen M. Vannucci.
They hopped in cars, buses and trains to international airports like O’Hare, where Trump’s ban netted and detained green card holders and other legal U.S. residents.
They walked through giant crowds of chanting protesters holding posters offering their free legal services. A photo of them huddled around a table near the Terminal 5 McDonald’s went viral across social media, with tens of thousands of upvotes, retweets, reblogs and shares.
More than 600 attorneys, translators and law students have signed up to volunteer at O’Hare in an ad hoc group to keep the effort going. They’ve created a Twitter account @ORDLawyersHQ and used a Google form to schedule six-hour shifts of 20 volunteers at a time from 6 a.m. to midnight through next Wednesday.
They’re stationed with laptops and donated Wi-Fi at folding chairs and collapsible tables. They canvass the airport holding handwritten signs and make calls from quiet corners.
“There’s this incredible energy of people who are ready to volunteer, who see this as a complete affront to not only humanity but also our rights,” said Emily Benfer, director of Loyola’s Health Justice Project.
The O’Hare volunteers serve as watchdogs, talking with immigrants who get through questioning, talking with family and friends waiting for someone to be returned to them, asking Customs and Border Protection for information or to expedite certain peoples’ questioning and lobbying for politicians’ help.
Benfer estimated that the group is assisting between 10 and 20 individuals or families who were held for secondary inspection or subject to extensive questioning each day. The group is in contact with the International Refugee Assistance Project and a Yale Law School clinic and is managed by a group of Chicago-based volunteers like Benfer.
She said when volunteers first deployed, they all thought they’d be responding to refugees trying to get asylum. Instead, the clients served on Saturday and Sunday were legal permanent residents who had already been vetted by the U.S. government and were living in the country for years, she said.
“This whole situation is such an affront to American values and all of our liberties,” Benfer said.
She said those detained at O’Hare over the weekend included a 6-month-old, an 18-month-old and a 2-year-old, some of whom were U.S. citizens.
They were detained for up to 12 hours, Benfer said, adding Customs and Border Protection was not forthcoming when attorneys asked if there were diapers or a way for a mother to get her baby milk.
Elderly people, including a couple in their 70s and 80s from Nevada that the ACLU of Illinois assisted, were also detained. Edwin C. Yohnka, director of communications and public policy at the ACLU of Illinois, said the Nevada couple was released around 11 p.m. Saturday, missed a connecting flight to Las Vegas and was worried adult their children waiting for them.
Benfer said people with health issues who needed access to medication were detained, including a cancer survivor who had a number of medications who was held for 10 hours.
Benfer said the people who had been detained were “treated like terrorists.”
“And it was just because of their national origin and their faith,” she said. “This is basically state-sanctioned bigotry.”
The executive order on immigration, titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States” and signed Friday, suspends all refugee admissions for 120 days, bars Syrian refugees indefinitely and restricts immigration from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Yemen.
That restriction means about 90,000 legal residents may not be able to get back into the United States if they leave, according to State Department statistics.
In fiscal year 2015, 89,387 people from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia received nonimmigrant or immigrant visas, according to the most recent data available from the State Department. That number doesn’t include people with dual citizenships who may also be restricted.
“We cannot let fear dictate our policies like this,” Vannucci said. “Because that’s what this is and it’s frightening.”
Sandra Frantzen, a partner at McAndrews Held & Malloy Ltd. and vice president of the Arab American Bar Association, spoke in Arabic with families standing by the security gates as they waited for their family member for several hours Sunday afternoon. She said the media presence was nerve-wracking for some families, especially if they didn’t speak English.
“Sometimes, you would just help them by saying ‘it’s just waiting, we just have to wait,’ and most people came through,” she said.
Vannucci, who is also co-chair of the Advocacy Committee of Chicago’s American Immigration Lawyers Association chapter, said most of the attorneys who had been volunteering Saturday until she and about 15 other AILA members arrived around 5:30 p.m. were not immigration attorneys.
“It was really basically triaging as things came together,” she said.
Some attorneys walked through the airport with signs offering free legal help. Back at the table near the McDonald’s, Vannucci called Congressional representatives to get support.
Local Democratic officials took part in the effort on Saturday. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Evanston made calls on the attorneys’ behalf to help get individuals released. Two staffers for Sen. Tammy Duckworth came and issued releases. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Schaumburg and Brad Schneider of Deerfield came to demand information from officials and thank the volunteer attorneys.
A representative from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office arrived and asked what supplies the volunteers needed, Vannucci said. Sunday, the mayor’s office supplied tables and extension cords and a printer showed up.
Public officials weren’t the only ones supporting the attorney volunteers. Hundreds of protesters held signs and chanted at the airport Saturday, Sunday and Monday and others have donated food. Saturday night, a non-attorney who wanted to help the cause when he read about the attorneys on Twitter showed up with 20 pizzas. Vannucci said she came to the airport straight from her office and hadn’t eaten lunch or dinner, so the pizza was all she ate.
“That guy was my hero,” she said.
Another person showed up with La Croix, water bottles, granola and bananas Saturday, Vannucci said. Sunday night, a group of women went to buy pizzas to donate and, when the pizza shop owner asked them what they were for, he gave them 75 percent off and wrote a note thanking the attorneys.
Yohnka described the situation as “chaos.”
He said the ACLU would be challenging the constitutionality of the executive orders, especially because he said they create religious discrimination by favoring Christian immigrants over non-Christians. He also said the group will be looking at operations in O’Hare, as the organization’s attorneys who went to volunteer Saturday night were not allowed access to people who were being detained and detainees were not able to reach family members.
“That’s something that is of great concern,” Yohnka said.
Holly E. Snow, an associate at Paul Hastings LLP, was at O’Hare for 35 hours over the weekend.
She said the group aided 18 people who had been detained or inspected in an unusual manner Saturday and numerous people Sunday. Volunteers were asked to track 19 people as they traveled through O’Hare to make sure they got through safely and they helped about a dozen people who drove in from the suburbs for quick legal advice on how to prepare a family member that’s scheduled to fly in from a banned country.
However, Benfer said CBP has denied the attorneys’ demands for a list of everyone who’s been detained. The only way the volunteers got information was by asking people outside of security: immigrants who had been let go after being detained, family members waiting on the outside and other passengers who got through customs.
Snow said volunteers were told by people who got through secondary inspection that 70 to 80 people were being questioned. She said volunteers have no way to know for sure if there were more immigrants traveling alone who may have been detained or deported.
Joshua A. Tepfer, an attorney with Loevy & Loevy, and Sarah L. Grusin, a justice fellow at Loevy & Loevy, volunteered in the airport from 6 a.m. to noon Monday. Throughout the day, volunteers spoke with immigrants who were detained and called travelers who had asked for their help to verify that they made it through.
Grusin speculated that may be because there have been calls to reroute flights or immigrants coming to the United States may not be allowed to board at the point of departure. However, since they haven’t received a list of people detained, she said volunteers can’t be sure.
The executive order was met with a resounding outcry from attorneys and advocacy organizations across the nation, as well as five forms of temporary relief from district courts over the weekend.
In addition to challenges from the ACLU and other legal advocacy groups, the State of Washington is alleging the order violates the first and fifth amendment, as well as the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed the federal lawsuit Monday against Trump, the Department of Homeland Security, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security John F. Kelly, Acting Secretary of State Tom Shannon and the United States of America.
“Unconstitutional, unAmerican and unlawful” is how Illinois Attorney General Lisa M. Madigan, Ferguson and 14 other attorneys general described the order. “We are confident that the Executive Order will ultimately be struck down by the courts.”
Among cases specific to the petitioners, two cases in federal courts granted nationwide stays. Saturday, a federal judge in New York issued an order staying the removal of people from the seven restricted countries at least through February 21. Sunday, two federal judges in Massachusetts granted a stay of removal nationwide that also limited the order’s additional secondary screening and banned detaining people covered by the executive order through February 4.
Acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Q. Yates also joined the resistance Monday, until Trump fired her at about 9:15 that night.
Yates, whom Barack Obama appointed to deputy attorney general in 2015, ordered Justice Department lawyers to not defend the immigration order, saying in a memo Monday that she was not convinced the order was lawful and that the department must act in “solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right.”
Monday night, Trump named Dana J. Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, in Yates’ place. Boente ordered Justice Department employees “to do our sworn duty and to defend the lawful orders of our President.”
There were 652 attorneys and translators on the @ORDlawyersHQ list serve as of Tuesday morning, including attorneys sent by AILA and the Arab American Bar Association.
“It’s been at least a small comfort to see that there are so many people willing to put their normal lives on hold and come dedicate their time here,” Grusin said.
Snow said she expected some kind of movement to maintain the volunteer presence so long as there is an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees.
Tepfer called the order racist and xenophobic and said it hurts the country’s national security.
“This is not the nation I want or believe in,” Tepfer said.