Tuesday, January 31, 2017
I served on Sunday as a volunteer attorney at the IAH airport in Houston, Texas. As director of the University of Houston Law Center Immigration Clinic I often do outreaches and other events. I can say that this experience, however, was like no other. I am proud to be a lawyer and proud of the lawyers who pitched in. Former students and about 20-25 attorneys showed up to help. We were an impromptu bunch of lawyers who gathered spontaneously with little or no prior discussion to help families get their loved ones released from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) upon landing at the airport from all over the world. Some were AILA attorneys but most were not immigration practitioners. They specialized in civil rights, criminal defense, federal courts, commercial litigators, tax attorneys and in-house counsels, among others.
Of great concern were those most immediately affected by President Trump's latest executive order: those from one of the targeted 7 countries, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia. We heard stories of many who were turned away by the airlines at the country of origin. Many were not allowed even to board the planes due to the misinformation and confusion created by the presidential order. We answered questions and advised families who were waiting hours that their relatives would be released under a nationwide stay order issued by a federal judge in New York. We stood ready to file a habeas in the event family members were not released or detained. The stay order protects those with a valid visa or green card from being removed. Unfortunately, at the least the stay order we had at that moment did not guarantee the release or protect against prolonged detention but did prevent removal. We received reports that some CBP officers were not abiding by the stay order, so we were legitimately concerned at the beginning of the day. At the beginning of the day it was unclear whether green-card holders would be protected.
During the long day, we spoke with green-card holders who had been detained. They were able to get through eventually but often had to wait hours and answer questions, including an on-line "waiver" form. On several occasions we filed G28 representation forms by faxing them to CBP. We spoke to CBP to try to get status of the detained travelers. Since there is no right of counsel at the border in "secondary inspection" attorneys are not permitted to meet with their clients or to review this new "waiver application" which apparently is now being imposed on all returning residents. There were reports at other airports that some green-card holders were being asked to sign a form abandoning their lawful permanent residence. The best advice is not to sign any documents without an attorney present.
Representation of anyone at a border or port of entry (POE) is especially problematic due to the lack of contact between attorney and potential client. It is frustrating and the frustration was palpable in the fear, confusion and panic I saw in many of the family members. Protesters began arriving at 4 PM and the crowd swelled to thousands as chants, speeches, and signs protesting the Executive Orders filled the air. Our job was difficult because it was hard to hear our potential clients over the protests. It was a chaotic environment. The Houston police department were accommodating. They let us know that we would be protected from any counter protesters. We did not see any. There was just a sea of protesters, concerned family members.
It was very difficult to advise people: What will happen with the stay? Will it become permanent? What more can we expect from the president? Can my brother, son or daughter travel to the U.S. or should he or she wait abroad despite possession of a valid travel document? These questions are hard to answer. The best response is there will be legal challenges daily, and the courts (or Congress) can reign in these presidential orders.
Amidst the confusion, we were repaid with kindness from strangers. The beauty of helping immigrants and people in need pro bono was evident. We were presented by strangers with pizza, Starbucks gift cards. Someone deposited row upon row of water. I was asked what we needed.
There was a feeling of common purpose, doing good for total strangers, for people in need, tinged by the terrible truth that we are living through an unjust moment of history. Late in the evening, we received word that General Kelly had issued a directive: green-card holders would be deemed "in the national interest." They still however are subject to a case-by-case waiver. Though this was a walking back of the executive order, it deviously preserved the language of the order by making a person's lawful status a category of exception to the overall bar to entry.
I was moved by Sunday's profound experience. It reminded me to never forget the spirit of our great county, its people, its lawyers, and to remember the power of the immigrants, America's source of inspiration, power and compassion.
UHLC Immigration Clinic-Director