The Golden Door

Although it has only been two weeks since Donald Trump issued the executive order banning travel to the United States for citizens of certain majority-Muslim nations, it feels like months have passed. I have spent those two weeks volunteering at my local airport, Newark Liberty International Airport, with an impressive ad hoc team of fellow lawyers who are deployed to assist those who have been caught up in the travel ban. It is, without a doubt, one of the most reaffirming things I have done in my 12 years as a lawyer. As I recount the story, please know that the views I express below are my own.i-got-this

I will go ahead and betray my own position on the executive order by stating that I believe it was too broad in its effect, too clumsy in its implementation, and too hardhearted in its intent. I think it is a good exercise as a nation to constantly review our policies and procedures and to make sure they are achieving their ends. For that reason I encourage frequent review of our immigration policy to strengthen our borders and ensure that our policies are firm but also fair. America is an exceptional nation because we insist that the means to our ends uphold our values of liberty and justice for all.  This executive order did not reflect these values, and for that reason, I grabbed my laptop, a power strip, extra phone chargers, and a large coffee and I set out for Newark Liberty to lend my law license to the pursuit of justice.

 

My experience with what is now lightheartedly (sort of) referred to as The Law Firm of the Resistance started the Sunday morning after the order was signed. I had been increasingly distressed by the developments over the weekend, and by Sunday morning I was sufficiently disturbed by what I was seeing that I decided it was time to jump in, even though I have no immigration experience. I can research and write, and with some guidance I can understand enough of a new area of law to be helpful to those who are experts in it. I jumped onto the Facebook page of Lawyers for Good Government, and navigated into their subpage dedicated to the immigration ban (yes, it is a ban). I read through about 12 hours of posts to discover that a massive network of stewards and protectors of our democracy sprang up overnight to defend our Constitution and the vulnerable individuals who were impacted by this ban. And then I cried, but not out of defeat or sadness at the situation we suddenly found ourselves in. I cried because this was the part in the movie when all hope seems lost, but the underdogs come from behind and band together to right the wrong and thwart the injustice, and some inspirational music plays over the scene to tug the heartstrings of the audience. All I was missing was the inspirational music as I sat in my pajamas on a cold Sunday morning, watching justice prevail. Although two weeks have passed since that morning, I still intensely feel the hope, pride, and awe that I first felt upon reading the posts on that Facebook page. I have never been more proud of being a lawyer.

I have clocked two shifts at Newark Liberty, and will do my third tomorrow if the current stay of the ban is overturned between now and then. On top of working at the airport, I also monitor our email account during the day and triage requests for help that come through there, and I help run our Twitter account (@EWR_Lawyers).  Volunteering at the airport has been pretty uneventful. Newark is a quiet place to be, compared to some of the larger airports like JFK (@nobanjfk) or O’Hare (@ordlawyerhq). We weren’t filing habeus petitions or running to the courthouse. We mostly monitor incoming flights for affected travelers, and keep tabs on the latest status of the ban, which airports are hassling people, which airlines are letting visa holders board planes bound for U.S. airports, and passing that information on to travelers. What I found truly amazing in this experience is the level of behind-the-scenes organization and coordination that is occurring among lawyers across the country to address this issue. Lawyers of every stripe are connected through a Facebook group and a Google group, and subgroups within those groups are established for each airport. Most have coordinated social media campaigns, and as time has passed, the airport groups has started reaching out to each other on Twitter with legal updates, requests for help, and words of encouragement. There are a few Twitter accounts, like @HelpTheLawyers, that amplify these messages to a broader audience. There is a daily all-airport conference call where the “on duty” lawyers call in with updates on affected passengers, interactions with law enforcement, legal updates, and supply requests. Since most, if not all, detainees have been released following the initial implementation of the ban, we have functioned more as observers at the airports, reminding Customs and Border Protection that someone is watching. In the early days of the ban when litigation was necessary, there was impressive coordination between the airport teams and the ACLU and International Refugee Assistance Project as to who was filing what kind of suit and where, so that work was not being duplicated and the message and strategy were clear and coordinated across the country.

This random group of what may at this point be thousands of lawyers that has coalesced seemingly out of nowhere is a remarkably effective group. They took a chaotic situation and made it into an organized and effective force of advocates, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice wherever they are needed. As others joined, the organization and structure held so that numbers added strength and depth, rather than chaos and disruption as sometimes can happen. It was inspirational to step back and see this coordination and information sharing occurring across practice lines (many of us are not immigration or civil rights lawyers), big law firms, solo practitioners, public interest firms, difference experience levels, and geography. It’s basically a civilian force of protectors of the Constitution. Today it is the immigration ban; tomorrow it may be some other issue. Regardless, this force is ready for it now. When I think of the implications of this group of at-the-ready lawyers, armed with their logic and deep understanding of the Constitution and our system of laws and government, I understand the point Shakespeare was making when he had Dick the Butcher proclaim in Henry IV, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” I have had several friends take back their lawyers-at-the-bottom-of-the-ocean jokes in the past couple of days.

Before I close, there’s one more point worth noting from this experience, and that is the diversity of the lawyers battling at the front lines of this fight. I still haven’t met everyone in my Newark airport group in person, but the individuals I have worked with at the airport are a beautiful representation of a cross-section of America. I sat at our makeshift clinic table by Green Beans Coffee in Terminal B and looked at who was there with me: of our two Arabic interpreters, one was a first generation American whose parents immigrated from Qatar, and the other was a young white guy who went to an elite northeastern college. Our lawyers included a married couple who were both Punjabi by ancestry, but who had grown up in Iraq and still had parents living there (parents who, under this ban, could no longer visit their children in the U.S.). There were two immigration lawyers, one of whom was Latina and worked in Biglaw and the other for a nonprofit. There was a lawyer who had come out of retirement and dusted off her law license to be there. We also had a female Egyptian lawyer who works with refugees, a young female lawyer who works in the Newark public defender’s office, and then me–a Jewish tax lawyer recently transplanted from Texas. I know it’s cliched to say, but our diversity really is our strength. It was necessary to have all of those voices at the table when formulating a response to this situation.

I will cherish this experience, and I’m so glad I stepped away from my known world of tax law and into the unfamiliar territory of immigration and advocacy. I think the last two weeks have had a similar effect on lawyers across the country as they arrived in droves to help. We have woken up from our corporate slumber to answer the primal call of our profession: defending our system of laws and using them to advocate for others. I suspect many of us will continue this work as we turn over in our minds this renewed understanding of our role in American society.

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