After executive order, volunteer lawyers descend on big airports

AP PHOTO In this Sunday file photo, volunteer lawyers work to help free travelers detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York. A cadre of volunteer lawyers, translators and others camped out in a diner at JFK, trying to find and free people detained under President Donald Trump's order temporary banning refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the U.S.

NEW YORK — It had been a few years since attorney Roman Zelichenko left immigration law for a career in finance, and longer still since he pulled an all-nighter.

But after President Donald Trump issued his immigration order, Zelichenko spent 21 straight hours at what swiftly became one of the nation’s most closely watched immigration law centers — a diner at John F. Kennedy Airport where volunteer lawyers, translators and others tried to find and free people detained under the new rules.

Alerted by law school friends, Zelichenko joined the effort because it resonated personally: He emigrated from Ukraine as a child.

“We all have different personal connections,” he said Monday as he worked on the project’s social media postings. But “we’re here as professionals, and our agenda is to uphold the rule of law.”

As Friday’s presidential order reverberated around the world, dozens of attorneys descended on JFK to advocate for people suddenly stuck in a legal limbo that the lawyers argue is unjust and unlawful.

Trump temporarily banned refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the U.S. Throughout the weekend that followed, travelers were held for questioning, confusion spread across the air-travel system and protesters marched against the measure.

Mobilized by email and word of mouth, the legal effort known on Twitter as “NoBanJFK” is one of several at major U.S. airports. Lawyers filed roughly two dozen lawsuits on behalf of detainees in several states and won several federal court rulings that, at least temporarily, blocked the government from removing people who arrived with valid visas.

At JFK, where lawyers helped win the first of the rulings Saturday night, the round-the-clock work began with attorneys typing on laptops on the airport floor. Now they sit at a cluster of cafeteria tables, and law students have toiled alongside seasoned litigators.

The volunteers take hotline calls on cellphones. Signs in multiple languages offer help.

More than 650 attorneys have volunteered for the project, which participants feel has done their profession proud.

“I think lawyers get a bad rap, and sometimes it’s deserved. But most of us went to law school to help people,” said Melissa Trent, a civil rights lawyer who left a training session to spend over 24 hours at the airport over the weekend.

“We believe in this country, its laws and the Constitution … and when we see those values challenged, we show up.”

The lawyers say Trump’s order violates constitutional protections against religious discrimination, among other principles and federal laws.

Trump casts the measure as a safeguard against violent Islamic extremism. The order temporarily blocks immigrants and visitors from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. It does not include all countries with ties to terrorism affecting the U.S., nor does it address the threat of homegrown militants.

Legal experts are divided as to how federal courts will ultimately view Trump’s action.

Whatever the final outcome, the airport attorneys and groups working with them have demonstrated a spontaneous form of legal rapid response to the new administration’s policies. Meanwhile, Democratic state attorneys general are mounting broader challenges.

Roughly 400 attorneys have signed up to volunteer at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, taking six-hour shifts from 6 a.m. to midnight.

On Tuesday, some held signs — “Do you need an attorney?” ”Was anyone on your flight detained?” — in arrival areas. Supporters donated office supplies, coffee and doughnuts.

With no information coming from the government on who is being held, legal volunteers glean what they can from arriving passengers and from detainees’ relatives or friends.

“These were families that were torn apart who had done nothing wrong,” says Russell Kornblith, an employment-discrimination lawyer who joined the JFK effort Saturday with his fiancee, Elizabeth Rosen, a corporate litigator.

US official: 872 refugees to be allowed in

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration said 872 refugees will be allowed into the United States this week despite a presidential order suspending the U.S. refugees program.

Kevin McAleenan, the acting head of Customs and Border Protection, said Tuesday that the refugees were already traveling and stopping them would cause “undue hardship.” Their admission comes despite President Trump’s warnings that refugees were not adequately screened to ensure they are not potential terrorists.

The refugee ban was part of an executive order signed Friday by Trump that has stoked outrage and protests.

Besides the 120-day ban for refugees, the order also bans entry to the United States from citizens of seven majority Muslim countries and indefinitely bars travel by Syrians to the U.S.

At a news briefing with McAleenan, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said the travel ban for the seven countries may be extended to other countries.

“I would be less than honest if I told you that some of those countries that are currently on the list may not be taken off the list anytime soon,” Kelly said. “They’re countries that are in various states of collapse” and may not be able to verify that people applying to come to the US are who they say they are.”

In his first briefing with reporters since he was confirmed, Kelly defended Trump’s order and said its intention is to keep would-be terrorist out of the United States and not serve as a ban on Muslims.

But Trump referred to it as a “ban” in a tweet Tuesday defending the decision not to provide advanced notice to travelers. Spicer also called it a ban on Monday.

“If the ban were announced with a one week notice, the ‘bad’ would rush into our country during that week,” Trump wrote. “A lot of bad ‘dudes’ out there!”