As high legal drama unfolded in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday over President Donald Trump’s travel ban, a group of volunteer attorneys stood by at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to help arriving refugees and visa card holders.
It turned out that no one required legal help, but the day did not pass uneventfully, said Jay Erstling, an international intellectual property attorney out of Minneapolis. He and other volunteer lawyers watched as 11 children between the ages of 9 and 17 were reunited with their families after days of not knowing if they would be allowed to enter the United States.
“It was incredibly moving,” Erstling said. The children, from four separate families, had been scheduled to fly to the United States earlier, but they were blocked in Nairobi due to the travel ban. When the federal courts intervened and allowed people to travel again, the families quickly purchased tickets.
The attorneys have been stationed at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for days now, watching and waiting at the international arrivals gate for anyone who might need legal help. Their presence has been an instinctive response to the executive order that temporarily banned travel from seven nations and restricts refugee resettlement, several said this week.
“We took an oath to uphold the Constitution,” said Tara Murphy, an intellectual property attorney from Minneapolis who was at the airport Tuesday evening. “For us, it isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue. It’s a question of law, and the law is very clear.”
Concerned that some visa holders might not know their rights, or be unlawfully detained as legal challenges to the executive order play out in court, some 200 to 250 Minnesota attorneys have volunteered to take a shift at the airport, said Kara Lynum, a St. Paul attorney who’s coordinating the effort with the help of the International Refugee Assistance Project.
Lynum has sent teams of three or four lawyers at a time to the airport to coincide with the arrival of international flights.
She also has an off-site immigration attorney ready to help with any questions via phone and a federal litigator who could quickly file legal paperwork — such as a lawsuit to get someone released from detention — if necessary.
Earlier this week, two Somali families and an Iranian family arrived at the airport while volunteer lawyers stood by. The attorneys briefly thought they might have to file a lawsuit, but the person was eventually released by customs and border protection officials.
“I’ve certainly had a flurry of activity both from people from the impacted countries and the non-impacted countries,” Lynum said. She’s encouraged clients with visas to come to the country as soon as possible, even if they’re not coming from one of the seven countries listed on the executive order. “Just because this is all so fluid,” she said.
An Iranian postdoctoral student traveling on a J-1 exchange visitor visa arrived earlier this week. Her attorney, Sandra Feist, said the woman bought airfare for an immediate flight when a temporary restraining order was filed against the executive order, allowing her to travel.
“We just kind of sprang into action, trying everything we could think of,” Feist said.
Feist said she’s advised another client, a Pakistani-Libyan citizen, against travel outside of the United States. That client may still choose to travel, she said, but she’s had many others cancel trips to go skiing in Canada or go on vacations to Mexico because they’re worried they won’t be allowed back into the United States, despite holding valid visas.
“It’s just a very volatile situation,” she said.
Attorneys share what information they have with one another, but the sudden changes to long-standing immigration practices have given rise to rumors. Feist said a legal association she belongs to has created a website specifically to debunk rumors rising out of the unfolding legal drama, like the one that said new countries such as Colombia would be added to the banned travel list. The page is open by invitation only.
“An ethical obligation”
The Minneapolis office of the law firm Robins Kaplan has offered free training for attorneys who want to help out at the airport, many of whom are coming from other areas of the law. A session last week drew well over 100 attorneys, said Mike Sheran, a business litigator who stood with three other attorneys Tuesday at the international arrivals gate at MSP.
The attorneys were taught to wait to see if anyone requests assistance. They don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the gate, and the only sign that someone’s been detained might be a waiting family member sitting nearby.
If someone appears to be waiting for a while, the attorneys are prepared to walk up, introduce themselves and ask if help is needed. They each wear a name tag that says “attorney” in English, Somali, Farsi and Arabic.
“As attorneys, we have an ethical obligation to do these things,” said Kyle Luebke, a Minneapolis finance attorney who was at the airport Tuesday afternoon. “No matter if you agree with the president’s [executive order], whether you think it’s good policy or bad policy. Every single person who goes through, they all deserve due process. They should not have their visas or their status revoked without an appeal.”
Standing nearby was David Moon, a Minneapolis finance attorney who spent a few hours volunteering at the airport. An immigrant, Moon came to the U.S. from Korea as a teenager to attend school. On one of his flights into the country he was detained for more than three hours.
“I know what it’s like,” he said of the detention process.
Now a full-time attorney at a major Minneapolis firm, he’s filed for permanent residency.