Diversity Leadership Council Newsletter
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Diversity Leadership Council

June 2017, vol. 10, no. 1

Airport attorneys

On Saturday morning, January 28, 2017, I received an e-mail I will never forget. I, like most practicing attorneys, receive hundreds of emails per week. But this email was different. In my almost 10 years of practicing immigration law, I had never seen anything like it.

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From: International Refugee Assistance Project

Subject: Emergency Airport Response for Detained Refugees — REPLY NEEDED

Message: Weve received word that it is now DHSpolicy to detain with intent to deport all arriving refugees… If you are available to go to your designated airport NOW, fill out this survey indicating your location and I will follow up with an email connecting you to others who will be joining you.

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Earlier that week, the immigration bar had received credible reports that the current Administration may be placing a hold on refugee resettlement. As a proactive measure, the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and our bar association, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), had compiled a standby list of first responder airport attorney volunteers. When I joined the airport attorney list, little did I know that our boutique practice area of law, and the lives of so many people, would be forever changed. Those of us who signed up agreed that we would be available to go to our local airport at a moment’s notice if and when the time came. And that time did indeed come on the morning of Saturday, January 28. As we now know, the night before, President Donald J. Trump signed Executive Order 13769, infamously known as the “travel ban.”

On receipt of the emergency email from IRAP, the message was clear and unequivocal; we needed to get to O’Hare Airport immediately. En route, my brother/colleague and I picked up two other airport attorneys, strangers to us prior to that morning. On the way, we fueled up on coffee, read the materials sent by IRAP and speculated about what we would encounter in Terminal 5. By all accounts, we were preparing to assist newly arriving refugees and we were hoping we could help in any credible fear interviews for those who might have a claim to asylum. IRAP informed us that “this is a grassroots effort, the likes of which may be unprecedented.” That statement turned out to be the most accurate description of the “Airport Attorney” movement, and on the short drive out to O’Hare, we braced to expect the unexpected.

We were one of the first groups to arrive at Terminal 5 and walking in, to the untrained eye, it seemed like any other Saturday in the international arrivals hall at O’Hare. However, to the airport attorneys, something was different. We began to notice the look of fear and worry on the faces of some people as they paced back and forth waiting for family members to come through the gates.

Within a few moments, we were approached by our first client - Mohammad. He had been waiting for hours for his U.S. citizen sister, his 6-month-old U.S. citizen nephew and his brother-in-law, an Iranian citizen with lawful permanent residence (“green card”) in the States. The family was returning “home” after a brief trip abroad to introduce their baby to their relatives abroad. They were all mid-air when the “travel ban” was signed. Unfortunately, their situation was not unique, as we had 18 clients similarly situated at O’Hare and this was mirrored in airports all throughout the United States.

The airport attorneys knew that, politics aside, we were experiencing nothing less than a humanitarian and legal crisis. We sprang into action and quickly established a makeshift legal triage center. As the hours passed by, the numbers of attorneys grew, as did the media presence and the chants of the thousands of outraged supporters. Looking back, it was incredible to witness how each attorney played to their own strengths: completing client intake, interacting directly with impacted family members, organizing the logistics of the legal center, liaising with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), drafting Writs of Habeas Corpus and Complaints for Injunctive Relief, coordinating with attorneys in other airports, and conducting any and all media interviews.

It became readily apparent that the scope of our work as airport attorneys was remarkably different than initially thought. If you recall, we were under the impression that would be assisting newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers. I can confidentially state that none of us anticipated that we would be advocating for upwards of eight hours to get U.S. citizen babies released from the unlawful custody of CBP.

I’m also sure that not one of us anticipated that two and a half months later, we would still have pro-bono airport attorneys at O’Hare on a daily basis. Since January, we have gone from an ad-hoc group of attorneys working to protect civil liberties at the airport to, with the assistance of CAIR-Chicago, the first ever organized and systemized Traveler Assistance Project in the nation. We have used technology to streamline this process and have created an online portal for worried travelers, an electronic exit interview process and most importantly, a taskforce to mount official complaints with the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the Department of Homeland Security, where necessary.

The O’Hare airport attorneys can proudly state that amongst our 1,400 members we have an extremely diverse group in every sense of the word: race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical abilities, religious and political beliefs. We have big law partners and solo practitioners. Some are newly qualified, some are 30-year veteran attorneys. We have attorneys from almost every practice group including employment, criminal defense, corporate and civil litigation, real estate, IP, environmental, family, trusts and estates and of course, immigration attorneys.

At the time of writing, while there remains much work to be done, I have never been prouder to be a member of the legal profession. Personally, I am part of a litigation team directly challenging Travel Ban 2.0 in the Northern District of Illinois. While the airport attorneys are as diverse as they come, we share one common goal and belief. We believe that diversity makes America great and we have vowed to use our legal training and experience to ensure that this diversity remains.

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Fiona McEntee is the Managing Attorney at McEntee Law Group, an immigration practice that represents worldwide corporations, technology start-ups, top musicians and artists, professional athletes, entrepreneurs and investors. She can be reached at info@mcenteelaw.com.