News

Taking the Stand: After Trump Immigration Ban, Lawyers Rise Up to Lend Legal Support

By Anna Stolley Persky

February 2, 2017

Lawyers at Dulles Airport, Photo courtesy of Alexander Nimmannit

“Taking the Stand” is a forum to address issues of importance to D.C. Bar members and that would be of interest to others. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the individuals interviewed for this story.


President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, imposed abruptly on January 27, created tumult and confusion throughout the world, particularly in major airports with international flights. Immediately following the order, travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries were barred from flights into the United States or detained once they arrived in the country. Critics have called the executive order overbroad and, in essence, a ban on Muslims.

Trump has defended his executive order, which also indefinitely bans Syrian refugees, as important in the efforts to keep the country safe. The president denied that the immigration order constitutes a religious test.

The response from outraged lawyers was immediate. They flooded into airports throughout the country, including Dulles International Airport, to offer their assistance. Attorneys from the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (CAIR), Lawyers for Good Government, and other organizations banded together, supplemented by individual volunteers who came in droves from the D.C. metropolitan area.

“It was an impromptu flash mob of lawyers,” says Mirriam Seddiq, acting as a press coordinator for the Dulles volunteers. Seddiq says at least 500 attorneys came to help over the weekend. “Now we’re organizing.”

Trump’s order includes a 90-day travel ban for nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen. But there was confusion over the order’s implementation. As a result, airports differed in how they applied the order to individuals with student visas, work visas, and green cards. Some individuals were detained without access to attorneys, others deported. Families were left waiting in airports for their loved ones.

U.S. district judges have issued temporary rulings blocking portions of the order. On January 28 Judge Leonie Brinkema of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ordered that permanent legal residents detained at Dulles be given access to lawyers and that they could not be removed for seven days.

The following morning D.C.-area lawyers were still flocking to the international baggage claim area at Dulles, ready to offer legal direction to travelers experiencing difficulty in the wake of the ban. In addition, the lawyers awaited definitive word on whether U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents were still holding any travelers and, if so, whether the lawyers would be permitted to talk to them, in accordance to the judge’s order.

Adina Appelbaum, a lawyer for CAIR, says the goal of the coordinated legal presence is to “ensure access to counsel and provide legal information to families who have people being affected.”

“We also want to demonstrate the continued presence of attorneys,” says Appelbaum. “Immigrants need to have their rights defended and are crucial to our country.

Trump has defended the abruptness of the executive order, tweeting on January 30, “If the ban were announced with a one week notice, the ’bad’ would rush into our country during that week. A lot of bad ‘dudes’ out there!” He also stated that Delta computer outage and protesters were causing “big problems” at airports.

Lawyers at Dulles, meanwhile, say they have no plans to leave anytime soon. Working in shifts and bolstered by food and office supply donations, they are determined to make their presence felt.

“I’m here until they tell me they don’t need me anymore,’” says Catherine Bernard, a professional support lawyer in the Washington, D.C., office of Mayer Brown who has worked pro bono on asylum and immigration matters.

“This executive order violates one of the great promises of this nation, which has been kept imperfectly, but has saved scores of people over the years,” says Bernard. “The promise is that this country will serve as a refuge for the most powerless among us.”

Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez of the public policy organization Demos says that now is the time for lawyers to volunteer, speak up, and do their best to “service the needs of impacted communities.”

“We are in a constitutional crisis and we need every lawyer in the country to help,” says Culliton-Gonzalez.

Seddiq encourages lawyers just to show up at Dulles and help out, even if it’s not for very long.

Lawyer Sabahat Chaudhary, a first-generation immigrant from Pakistan, appeared with her baby in tow. “I’ve been so stressed out since this election and since the inauguration. This at least makes me feel like I am doing something,” Chaudhary says.