I was lounging around at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 28, when I received an e-mail from the International Refugee Assistance Project in New York: Were there any attorneys who could go to Chicago O’ Hare International Airport to assist if U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, detained refugees?
The previous day, the new American president had signed an executive order halting the U.S. entry of citizens from seven Middle Eastern and African countries for 90 days, the entry of all refugees for 120 days and the entry for all Syrian refugees indefinitely. (A ruling on February 3 by a federal judge in Seattle blocked parts of the travel ban, temporarily reinstating the arrival of those with valid visas.) On that last Saturday in January, no one was sure how the ban would roll out.
I immediately e-mailed the refugee organization back and said I could go. About an hour later, I received an e-mail containing legal documents and instructing about 15 attorneys to go to the airport—now. We lawyers started emailing each other. Where should we meet? We decided on Terminal 5, near exit B, by a McDonald’s.
I was the second lawyer to arrive. As each of us walked through the doors, we introduced ourselves and started wondering what it was we were supposed to do. We reviewed the papers we had been e-mailed. We talked to a contact person. In the end, we devised our own strategy: We would walk around the terminal and let people know we were here. We explained we were here to help if their expected loved one never walked through the arrival doors.
We also started posting on social media, letting people know we were at O’Hare. Some started tweeting under #NoWallNoBanCHI. We all told our friends to stay tuned.
Soon after we arrived, we learned about a Syrian woman who had been deported earlier that morning. She lived in Saudi Arabia and had arrived from there to help her mother, who had just undergone surgery. She came with hospital papers and a return ticket. She had a visa, which allowed her to stay temporarily in the U.S. CBP turned her around and deported her in a very short time. We had no chance to intervene.
Shortly after making ourselves known, a man of Iranian descent approached us and told us his sister, brother-in-law and niece were being detained. His brother-in-law had texted him to let him know. This was unusual, as this was the only detainee we encountered who managed to text someone on the outside.
Through our interaction, I learned his brother-in-law held dual citizenship from the United Kingdom and Iran. His wife and daughter were U.S. citizens, but they chose to remain with him throughout the detention. I also learned this family resided in Park Ridge, and he had recently been given his green card, which gave him lawful permanent residency in the U.S. This sparked our next endeavor.
“We must hit the phones,” we told each other. “We need to call our congressional representatives.” This had worked at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York; maybe it would work here. Attorneys started calling, tweeting and posting on Facebook and Instagram. We enlisted anyone who had any connections. We asked on Facebook for people to contact representatives and apprise them of the situation.
Through this, someone reached Jan Schakowsky, a congresswoman for the Illinois 9th district, which included the area where the family in Park Ridge lived. She gathered facts and began to make calls. All day, I talked her through the latest totals of people detained, made sure she received the names and addresses of the detainees, and provided her with updated information. Others were doing similar things with Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth.
We were also doing media interviews. All news outlets were covering this as it unfolded. FOX, CNN, ABC, CBS, NPR, WTTW—you name it. They were all there. We felt we had to get the word out. We had to let people know what was happening. We had to tell the detainees’ stories. They were more than mere numbers.
At this point, a flight had come in from Doha, the capital of Qatar. Families were starting to realize their loved ones were not coming through the arrival doors. We found them, or they found us. Our little makeshift law practice near McDonald’s came to life.
The attorneys split up into groups. One group of attorneys set up a triage center. Two attorneys started gathering such information as names, immigration status, residence and family information. We tried to assign someone who had some immigration experience to each case, but at this point, it was not always possible. All of a sudden, we seemed to have four to five new family groups represented. We went from 4 known detainees to 16.
We also were learning about the people detained. When we arrived at the airport, we thought we would be helping refugees, but it turned out we were advocating on behalf of legal permanent residents and people holding visas that had already approved their entry.
We had a professor from Oakton Community College. We had an older man from Iran who held a green card. A woman from Ohio had applied for her green card, and she was with her 2-year-old daughter, who was a U.S. citizen. A couple had lived in Crystal Lake for years, but they held Syrian passports. We had a mother and young daughter who had traveled from Pakistan to see their father, who was here studying at a local university. We had 70-plus-year-old man with a green card who held a passport from Yemen, but he had lived in the U.S. for 18 years. There were others.
Because we did not know which individuals CBP would decide to deport, if any, a group of attorneys prepared to file a writ of habeas corpus for each detainee. The writ of habeas corpus allows individuals to petition a federal district court judge to remedy unlawful detention by government officials.
One of the lawyers working with the family from Park Ridge had the brilliant idea of calling an emergency line in London. The Park Ridge man being detained was born in the United Kingdom, so the lawyer wanted to see if the British government had something to say about the fact the United States would not recognize a citizen of the U.K. The person who picked up the phone on the other side of the Atlantic said they would look into the situation right away. Prior to this, we had learned CBP was not recognizing dual citizenship. They would only recognize citizenship from one of the seven banned countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
We never received any explanation, but around 6:30 p.m., the Park Ridge family was released. When I saw the brother whom I had worked with all afternoon, he reached out for the biggest hug. He told me as soon as he saw us and heard we were there to help, he knew he wasn’t alone. He knew there were people who cared about him and his family.
I had to leave at about 7:30 p.m., so I was not able to see everyone being released after the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York issued a national stay that prevented CBP from deporting any of the detainees. I was later informed everyone had been released by 10 p.m. that evening.
There have been many more detained, and I cannot keep up with the news. As you can imagine, it is very hard to get accurate information unless you are there. Everything is very fast-paced and constantly changing.
I write this not to garner any recognition or thanks. I write to tell others what happened and how people came together to support the most vulnerable. The community of attorneys and laypeople were amazing. The protests were peaceful. Encouragement came in heavy doses. I left unsettled but so thankful to have been a part of this day and so thankful to be a part of those who fight for our neighbors.
Hannah Garst is a criminal defense attorney practicing in suburban Chicago. She attends Willow South Barrington.