Lawyers on the Front Lines: One Family Lawyer’s Experience Volunteering at O’Hare
This past weekend (and continuing into this week), hundreds of attorneys around the country mobilized at local international airports to help immigrants and refugees affected by the Executive Order restricting admission from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen.
Guest author Kimberley Crum Klein, a criminal defense and family lawyer at Klein & Mosser, LLC in Chicago, had a particularly powerful experience from the front lines at O’Hare:
I answered the call on Saturday for attorneys to go to O’Hare to support/assist with people being held as a result of the recent Executive Order issued banning entry to the United States by people from certain countries. The experience was nothing short of amazing.
I arrived early on Saturday, the first full day since the order was signed, around 4:00 p.m. The attorneys were just starting to gather at their agreed meeting spot outside of the McDonald’s in the international terminal at O’Hare airport. There were three women who we all looked to as the defacto leaders because they were immigration attorneys and because they took the lead. They set up what they first called “the triage area” for other lawyers to do intakes and to get assignments. There were probably about 20–30 attorneys there while I was there, and about half of those were immigration attorneys. The rest of us were from varied practice areas. We were all strangers, but almost immediately we had an impromptu law firm set up and running. We spoke with family members of the people being detained and gathered as much information as we could about them. We contacted representatives, some of whom were immediately responsive and wanted to help. As soon as we had some names and information, several attorneys pulled more tables to the “triage area” to make a conference table, set up laptops, and began preparing habeas writs for those being held for whom we had information just in case they were needed.
These lawyers were incredible. The area was packed with exceedingly smart people all coming together for a common cause with passion and dedication. I’m not sure I have ever been prouder of my profession. “First, let’s kill all the lawyers” indeed, because we have pencils and paper and laptops and words, and we won’t let these things happen.
At the same time that we were beginning to gather, the protestors started coming. They brought signs and stood around the arrival gates talking with one another, while TV cameras were being set up and reporters were speaking with the protestors, the families of those being held, and the attorneys. Someone brought sign making materials, and as new people came they made signs out of various materials. Once the crowd became large, many people began to move outside the terminal. I don’t know if they did that on their own or if they were asked to go outside. Everything about this crowd that I saw was peaceful, positive, and supportive.
One of the attorney leaders had been in contact with the Custom and Border Patrol’s shift commander who had just started his shift at noon on Saturday, right as the first flight from one of the banned countries was landing. He didn’t really have much information and was figuring it out as he went, as were we. No attorneys were allowed to speak with the people being held at that point. I should clarify that they were not being formally detained, but instead were being held at what is called a “secondary inspection” point. As I understand it (according the immigration attorneys), this is a normal part of the process but it is normally just a formality.
I don’t believe that any of the people who were held at O’Hare were even refugees. The ones I know of were all green card holders and completely legal residents of the United States.
My “job” was to speak with each family that was there to gather information to be given to the representatives who were trying to help. I was glad to have that job, because it meant that I got to talk to the people who were being directly and immediately affected by the situation.
I spoke to one young man who was in his early 20s, about the same age as my sons. He had come to the airport to pick up his parents who were coming from Kuwait where they had been on vacation. They have Syrian passports, and they both have green cards and have been legal residents of the United States for many years. Their son is a United States citizen. His parents have social security numbers, work, pay taxes, and own property. As it turns out, they live about two miles away from me and I have to pass their street to get to my daughter’s house. These people are quite literally my neighbors. This young man was distraught because he couldn’t get in touch with his parents, and he kept asking me how this could happen since they have green cards and they are legal. I didn’t have an answer for him, but told him that we were all working on it.
I spoke to another man who was soft-spoken and clearly overwhelmed by all of this. He was waiting for his wife and two year old daughter who were being held. He and his wife are from Iran. He has a green card, and his wife has applied for an EB2 green card (an employment visa for people with exceptional talent or advanced degrees). His daughter is a United States citizen. His wife had gone to Iran to visit relatives with his daughter, and now they were both being held.
There was also an 18-month old who was held during this time. After I spoke to the man with the two year old, all I could think about was what it must be like for those mothers and their children. Imagine…they had probably planned and packed for a long airplane journey with these young children. They probably packed diapers and maybe a change of clothes, probably some food and toys, to try to get through the trip. After many hours on the plane, they got off only to be held in a room for another 12 hours after landing. Did they have enough diapers? Food? Those babies must have been tired and cranky and difficult after all that time. The mothers probably had no idea what was going on and they couldn’t contact their families so they must have been scared and tired and maybe hungry and uncertain about what was going to happen to them. How could we do this to mothers and babies?
I left before the protestor crowd reached the sizes I saw on the news and before anyone was released, but I kept in touch so I knew when the first few were finally being released. The attorneys planned to have lawyers at the airport working in shifts through the night and over the next couple of days in case they were needed.
I remember learning about slavery and the Underground Railroad and about the Holocaust in school when I was young. I always wondered then, and have since then, what I would have done if I had lived during those times.
Would I have owned slaves, or would I have been an abolitionist? Would I have helped along the Underground Railroad if I could? If I had lived in Germany or in an occupied country during the Nazi reign, would I have helped to hide Anne Frank and her family? Would I have been horrified about the atrocities committed by the Nazis then? I never dreamed that I would have an opportunity in my lifetime to find out what I would have done, but that is exactly what is happening now.
Kim can be reached at email@example.com.
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