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Northwestern Law Alumni Take Action in Wake of Executive Orders

April 28, 2017

Within hours of President Trump’s signing of Executive Order 13769 on January 27th—better known as the “travel ban”—protestors, concerned family members, and the media all flocked to international airports across the country. Over the weekend, crowds grew and included large numbers of volunteer attorneys looking to help however they could. Several Northwestern Law alumni shared their experiences and their hopes moving forward.

Assisting at the Airports

Alanna Holt
Alanna Holt and a colleague assist at LAX.

“I decided to just hop in the car at 10 or 11 a.m. on Saturday,” said Alanna Holt (JD ’13), a staff attorney at the Immigrant Defenders Law Center in Los Angeles. “I knew that there was a group of lawyers meeting there and I was just going to sort of get a lay of the land.”

“It was really bizarre couple of days. When I first got there, there were maybe six lawyers and a couple of protesters who were holding up signs. Everything felt kind of peaceful and at first no one really knew if bad things were happening.” 

“We spoke to a woman who was waiting on her son. She was from Iran and her son is a green card holder, and her son had been detained for something like ten hours. She was really upset. Just that fact that a green card holder was being detained overnight made me realize that this was going to be madness, because if they are willing to hold someone of that status then everyone coming here from these countries on travel visas is in trouble. It is unheard of to not allow a green card holder into the country.”

By the end of her first shift, Holt knew her services were still needed and she returned to LAX’s international terminal the next day.

“It was like the whole operation had doubled overnight. There were thousands of protestors, hundreds of lawyers. There were volunteer interpreters, immigration lawyers, non-immigration lawyers. Still a ton of people being detained. A lot of family members that were there on Saturday were still there the next morning on Sunday, but we had a little bit more of a process in place. We had intake forms and paperwork to enter notices of appearance and we were starting to figure out how we could do individual advocacy on behalf of people as opposed to just taking their information and adding them to a lawsuit seeking relief in federal court.”

Halfway across the country, Emily Dillingham (JD ’06) was one of the volunteers helping to put advocacy processes in place at O’Hare. An associate with Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, she received an email from the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) the weekend the order came down, asking available attorneys to come to O’Hare’s Terminal 5. 

“There was an overwhelming force that showed up,” Dillingham said. “My role that first night was really limited; I canvassed family members, identified candidates for lawsuits and habeas petitions. I just felt compelled to be there.”

In the weeks that followed, Dillingham served as a shift leader multiple times and helped with the administrative work of organizing volunteer attorneys to staff the terminal around the clock, even after the executive orders were stayed in court.

Ginger Devaney
Ginger Devaney (center) joins the group of lawyers assisting at O'Hare in the week following the executive order.

Ginger Devaney (JD ’14), an immigration attorney with the Chicago-based Domestic Violence Legal Clinic, joined the group of volunteer lawyers staffing O’Hare in the middle of the first week of the initial executive order.

“Once the executive order came down, people were panicking. People were worried that it was going to affect folks that were already in the U.S. They were worried that it was going to be expanded, so the first few days, I was mostly putting out fires with my own clients and clients' relatives who might be affected,” she said. “There were plenty of people who wanted to volunteer at the airport, which was great, so I stayed back until Wednesday. It turns out they had many people who were willing to help but almost no immigration attorneys.”

Devaney was distressed by what she heard from clients and what she saw in action.

“It's been just an enormous waste of resources and effort, not to mention inhumane and cruel. But having to cancel and reinstate at least 60,000 visas, just the human energy involved is a ridiculous waste. Also, then you have the poor [Customs and Border Patrol] commanders on the ground who are getting conflicting reports from their supervisors, from the news, from the lawyers who are haranguing them. It's just been very frustrating.”

Efforts Continue Amid Uncertainty

On February 9, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a temporary restraining order on the travel ban. On February 16, the Trump administration announced its intent to issue a revised order, and issued Executive Order 13780 on March 6. The revised order was challenged immediately, and a temporary restraining order became an indefinite preliminary injunction on March 29. The Trump administration has said it will continue to fight on behalf of the order.

Many immigrant advocacy organizations say despite the stay, legal assistance is still desperately needed and they have sustained a presence at airports and in communities that are fearful about what might come next from the administration.

“Sometimes I wish I had a crystal ball and then sometimes I don't,” Devaney said. “I work in a legal aid clinic. All of my clients are poor. Most of them are not eligible for public benefits until we help them get status and then some of them are eligible for [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families], which is cash aid, and then they become eligible for Medicaid as well. We encourage people to get those immediately; they're entitled to those benefits and they really help. But now there's a draft executive order floating around saying that they're going to expand the grounds for deportability. So we're really torn about encouraging people to apply for those benefits at this time because what's going to happen if that becomes its own deportability issue?”

The organizations and relationships many attorneys formed on a grassroots level in the wake of the travel ban have laid a groundwork for an apparatus to fight where they see injustices. 

“If anything, the revised order has galvanized the attorneys working on this issue. We have changed our name from the O’Hare Legal Team to the Chicago Legal Responders Network, as the group evolves from one handling the travel ban to one available to respond to other challenges to civil rights that may arise from the actions of this new administration,” Dillingham said. 

Dillingham is also working with attorneys from her firm and partnering with Muslim Advocates, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Southern Poverty Law Center to bring a lawsuit in the D.C. District Court seeking an injunction of the revised order. Oral argument on a preliminary injunction motion is scheduled for April 21. 

“I’m incredibly proud of the work that we’re doing,” she said.

Holt, Devaney, and Dillingham all stressed the need for more involvement from those interested.

“We need more lawyers in the immigration system like yesterday. We need so many more lawyers.” Holt said. “We need more funding to put more lawyers into the system because immigration enforcement is not even close to as simple as the president or the administration wants to make it seem— that if you are undocumented then you should just be removed, there's no reason for you to be here. Well, if someone has U.S. citizen family members and strong ties to the United States and no criminal history then they can qualify for status. There is something that can be done for them, but the only way that's going to happen is if they have a lawyer.”

“As an attorney you have the basic tools to be able to dive into this, and more importantly we need you and we want your help,” said Holt, who worked as a public defender before joining the Immigrant Defenders Law Center last year. “So don't be intimidated by the fact that you don't have any background in immigration law. I didn't six months ago and now I'm here kind of in the thick of it and I'm very glad that I am.”