How US pro bono lawyers mobilised to beat Trump travel ban


james-sandbachThe American legal profession’s response to the new president’s controversial executive order was unprecedented, says James Sandbach.

Amid the misery caused by Donald Trump’s executive order banning anyone trying to enter the USA from seven Muslim countries, there have been shining beacons of hope and strength.

At the time of writing, the order has been suspended, following a legal challenge. However, the rapid pro bono response to the ban by the US legal community to help travellers, dual-nationals, green card or visa holders and previously legitimate refugees detained following the order has showcased all that is good about the legal profession.

As soon as the ban took effect on Friday 27 January, hundreds of lawyers flocked to major US airports to provide advice, file habeas corpus petitions, secure asylum interviews, make emergency representations and challenge Airport Customs and Border Protection officials. Attorneys from well-known US law firms, Akin Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld; Davis Polk, Hogan Lovells, Kirkland & Ellis, and Mayer Brown, as well as non-profit legal organisations responded quickly to the emerging crisis when the executive order was signed. An unprecedented effort to provide support was mobilised through social media. By the end of the weekend after Trump signed the order, Amazon, Expedia, GitHub and other tech companies were also joining in lawsuits against the immigration ban.

As reported by the Washington Post: ‘By Saturday afternoon, arrival terminals in airports from Dulles, Va., to Chicago to San Francisco were being turned into makeshift hubs for legal aid. Lawyers assembled conference-style tables in restaurants and gathered around electrical outlets with their laptops awaiting work. Some held signs near arrivals gates introducing themselves to families in need.’

Images posted on social media over the weekend showed legal teams working on laptops on the floor of airport terminals, in check-in lounge restaurants. With thousands of protestors gathered outside US airports, the frontline resistance was being waged by lawyers believing in their mission to uphold the US constitution. Despite the confusion and lack of information from Federal authorities about those detained, the massive pro bono effort directed itself effectively at the emerging need, using limited resources to identifying detainees names, make contact with families (often through holding up signs in Arabic and Farsi by security gates) and intervene quickly.

It would be tempting to describe this as a spontaneous or pop-up pro bono effort, but that would be misleading as the New York Immigration Coalition, the International Refugee Assistance Project, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union, all played significant coordinating roles. And from Saturday onwards the initiatives appear to have become more structured with dedicated (day and night) shift patterns, volunteer rotas and makeshift case-management systems. However the sheer speed and scale of the pro bono response has been hugely impressive; for example at New York’s JFK’s airport, it is estimated that several hundred lawyers volunteered; at O’Hare airport the co-ordination and recruitment of attorneys and interpreters at a makeshift HQ provided by the Airport authority was coordinated through Twitter @ORDLawyersHQ ( see here), a team of around 40 lawyers were working at Denver International Airport, while in Dallas more than 100 lawyers worked over the weekend, assembling a legal ‘war room’ in an airport hotel conference room, paid for by a crowdfunding campaign. While many of the lawyers involved are immigration attorneys, the ranks of airport advocates have been swelled by corporate litigators, criminal defence lawyers, and law school professors.

Meanwhile the misery and confusion caused by the executive order continues, despite the successfully injunction (currently being appealed) which has stayed the most immediate deportations pending higher judicial proceedings as to its constitutionality. According to State Department data, over 90,000 non-immigrant or immigrant visas have been issued to people from the seven affected countries over past year, so the crisis will be ongoing.

Are there lessons that we can learn in the UK from the heroism of the US lawyers responding to such a grave need and situation? Well quite evidently, yes. We spend a lot of time and resource trying to work out how pro bono could be better organised in the UK and the strategic, managerial and regulatory framework – pro bono hours, targets and policies, charters and manuals. What also matters is the capacity and ability for an effective rapid response when the need arises. We need to move beyond the sometimes stuck debate about pro bono versus legal aid – in a time of such deep uncertainty and erosion of civil rights we need more of both. The final lesson though is to everyone who is concerned about the state of play with political life, civil liberties and rank injustice – don’t get mad, get organised!


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