“Lawyers check in here,” instructs a paper sign hanging on the edge of a café table. “Translators,” “habeas petitions” and many signs with the slogan #NoBanJFK flag the improvised legal triage at JFK International Airport’s terminal 4 arrivals area.
Monday morning, a fresh group of 35 or so volunteer attorneys opened their laptops in an enclosed area at Central Diner, relieving a haggard crew who had been fighting for the release of detained immigrants and refugees throughout the night.
These are the lawyers — facilitated by the American Civil Liberties Union — who helped get a federal judge in New York on Saturday to grant a stay order on President Donald Trump’s three-month ban on foreign nationals from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia. Since Saturday, two people had been deported before the stay and 44 were released after it. By 10 a.m. Monday, there was only one person still being held; but soon another plane delivered more forbidden people.
“I came here because Saturday I was dumbfounded for what was happening. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” corporate insurance attorney Priya Gandhi, 31, told Metro. As a daughter of Indian immigrants, she felt particularly compelled to help.
"It reminds me of the Civil Rights movement, when lawyers were assembling,” Gandhi said. “The legal industry is very competitive, and you have people usually going into courtrooms and arguing with each other, to see them all working side by side, making a difference. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”
The lawyers had started on Saturday by approaching distraught families of refugees waiting for their loved ones. Green card holders, arriving alone and expecting to casually slip off in a cab, were approaching the lawyers' tables looking for recourse after traumatic interrogations. Their interactions with customs officials were "minimal at best." In many cases, all the attorneys can do is provide emotional support and phone numbers for other resources.
“It was an Orwellian nightmare,” said Mark Hanna, 28, who first joined his law school friends in the effort to assist at JFK on Saturday. “It’s stuff you would see on ‘24.’ There was someone with a green card who was released yesterday: he was interrogated for hours and hours, they went through his computer, his files, they were freaking out because he had a Koran book on tape. This guy came out in tears dragging his stuff behind him.”
After only three days since the start of the immigration predicament, the legal operation, comprised of mostly solo pro-bono attorneys, was a “well-oiled machine,” Gandhi said. Early on, the New York Immigration Coalition had stepped in to help organize and maintain a functional operation.
“Everyone here has taken on a specific role,” she said, adding that with a few texts and Facebook posts she had drawn in a stable of Arabic and Farsi speaking attorneys as translators.
Hanna was on habeas corpus duty (petitions pertaining to unlawful imprisonment), because he was one of a handful of lawyers licensed by the Eastern District of New York where JFK is located.
Gandhi said this experience in human rights might lead her in a new professional direction.
“It’s one of those facets of the law where you can really make a difference in people’s lives. You fight for them. You fight for what’s right. These are families, these are children, these are mothers and brothers and sisters,” Gandhi said.