The Sprint That Saved Hundreds of Refugees and Immigrants from Being Deported

The Sprint That Saved Hundreds of Refugees and Immigrants from Being Deported

FEBRUARY 3, 2017

In the unfolding fight to defend our immigrant communities, it’s important to remember that we’re in a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes for our legal team, though, a sprint is just what’s needed.

That was the case last Friday night (Jan. 27) when our legal team rushed to the aid of two Iraqi men who had landed at JFK Airport in New York to find that, as NILC Legal Director Karen Tumlin put it, “The world had shifted under their feet.”

The men, Hameed Khalid Darweesh and Haider Sameer Abdulkaleq Alshawi, both had permission to come to the U.S., but that didn’t matter. Under a newly issued executive order, just hours old when they landed at JFK Friday evening, all travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries were effectively banned from entering the country.

It didn’t matter that the men had a legal right to be here. It didn’t matter that such a ban is unconstitutional. They were detained and told they would have to turn around and go back to a place that was no longer their home.

In Iraq, Darweesh had worked for the U.S. government for years as an interpreter, and he faced dangers there because of that work. He and his wife and children were on their way to starting a new life when he was stopped by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers. Alshawi was on his way to be reunited with his wife and son in Texas when he, too, was detained. But just as the two men, when they were flying toward what they expected would be freedom, couldn’t have known that they’d be detained when they got off the plane, they also couldn’t have known that strangers would work frantically into the early morning hours to free them and make sure they got to stay in their new home country. Those strangers were civil rights lawyers from the International Refugee Assistance Project, the Yale Law School Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, the ACLU, and NILC.

Knowing that at any moment the men could be deported, the attorneys scrambled to get the lawsuit filed—at 5:36 Saturday morning, to be exact—and the rest is history. The federal district court scheduled a hearing for that same afternoon, the judge granted an emergency stay, and the men were freed. The judge ordered that immigrants and refugees subject to President Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order who were en route to the U.S. should be allowed to enter the country. Other lawsuits would soon follow that would chip away at other aspects of the ban.

Still, there’s a lot of work to be done. The main thrust of the lawsuit filed in New York challenges the legality of the ban, and that issue will have to be fully considered in the courts. The lawsuit also asks that the government provide a list of names of all those affected by the ban. In the chaos that followed the executive order, lawyers were frantically checking international airline arrivals and questioning those coming off the flights to determine if they were subject to the ban. A complete list, which as of now has not been provided, would allow attorneys to provide direct help to those who need it.

The list is also essential to ensure people aren’t deported during the time courts are considering the legality of the executive order. As a matter of policy, attorneys are barred from seeing clients when they are at Customs and Border Protection inspection stations, so without a list the legal team can’t know if the government is violating the court’s emergency stay and wrongfully deporting people.

That’s why the legal team was back in court Thursday: to say that they would seek court intervention to get that list if the government doesn’t provide it. A new judge assigned to the case also extended the emergency stay until Feb. 21, 2017.