On January 27, 2017, President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13769, titled Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States—also known as the Travel Ban. The Executive Order was signed on a Friday at 4:39pm and the text was not released to the press for several hours; however, by Saturday morning, airports across America began to fill with protestors outraged over the order. Many of the protestors viewed the order as a ban on those of the Muslim faith and discrimination against certain communities from entering into the United States.
The Executive Order came seemingly to fulfill President’s Trump’s campaign promises to protect US borders and prevent terrorist activities. The order, as originally signed, denied entry into the country from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen for 90 days, barred the entry of refugees for 120 days, and indefinitely denied Syrian refugees entry into the country. Further, the order reduced the number of refugees permitted to resettle in the United States, and called for preferential treatment to be given to religious minorities once refugee resettlements resumed. The order went into effect immediately, which meant some people impacted by the ban were airborne when the order was signed, and they were subsequently detained at airports when they landed.
The protests at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City began after two Iraqi refugees—one who had worked on behalf of the US government and another who’s wife was a US contractor—were detained. Attorneys began to show up in force to advocate on behalf of these men and at least 12 other people who were detained at JFK. Sarah Gillman, an attorney, who has long been an immigrant’s rights attorney, and advocate found herself doing the work she does every day in a way that she has never had to do it before.
Gillman is a supervising attorney at the Immigration Law Unit within the Legal Aid Society of New York City. Gillman has been with the Legal Aid Society for 16 years, and she has spent about 10 years representing people detained. She also co-leads the New York Family Immigrant Project, which is the first public defender program in the United States for low-income people in immigration detention. In short, defending people in detention is nothing new for Gillman, and it has long been her passion even before law school. Her maternal grandfather escaped from Armenia, where he was being persecuted because he was Jewish, so Gillman has a personal belief that people should be able to enter into the United States. Gillman shared with us her insight and advice in a recent interview transcribed below:
What was your involvement with the airport protests?
I was going out to the airport to protest and one of the lawyers at the airport asked me to bring my computer because they needed lawyers who know how to file [claims] in federal court. I stayed at the airport overnight.
How has that experience compared to previous experiences practicing law?
I advocate on behalf of people often who are detained, but the difference here was the response from the people. There were at least 1,000 people outside protesting on behalf of the detainees and there were a number of lawyers that were there to help. There were some organizations who engaged in an effort to drive people there, but people also showed up organically. It was good to see the number of people who showed up to help the people detained at the airport. The people at the airport were in a bad situation, but so are the clients we see often.
How, if at all, has your work changed within the last 8 months under the Trump Administration?
The narrative has changed. The Administration’s narrative seems to be to deport as many people as possible, and the response from the government is to detain as many people as possible. The travel ban was just the first indication. It is concerning how the administration talks about immigrants and people quite frankly.
On January 29, the Sunday after the Executive Order was signed, a New York court, as well as four other federal courts stayed the order. In March, the Executive Order was revised to exempt those who have visas and green cards and remove Iraq from the list of banned countries. The Supreme Court ruled in June that the government could not impose the 90-day ban on the six countries or the 120-day ban on refugees if the individual could provide that she or he had a “bona fide relationship” with a person or entity in the United States. The Court maintained a federal court ruling that individuals who are grandparents, grandchildren, brother and sister in laws, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins of a person(s) in the United are exempt from the ban.
The Supreme Court has allowed a scaled down version of the travel ban to go into affect. As a practical matter, does this scaled down version impact communities any differently than the initially released ban?
The travel ban has created a state of fear for people and any version of the ban would create this level of fear.
What advice would you give young attorneys who are representing the immigrant population?
To young lawyers, I would say there are a lot of uncertainties, but remember you have skills that can be used. As you are representing clients remember to always listen to your clients, and try to understand your clients and what they are experiencing. Lastly, remember this country is a nation of immigrants.
Gillman knows her work will not be slowing down anytime soon, regardless of what happens with the travel ban, as people will continue to be detained and continue to need attorneys to represent them. During the weekend of airport protests, an estimated 100 people were detained across the country, and thousands of protestors, including an unknown number of lawyers, showed up in major cities such as New York, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and Washington, D.C. The time is ripe for those young lawyers who wish to become involved and they may follow Gillman’s lead.