Protesters gather outside JFK Airport in New York City. Stephen Yang/Reuters

A conversation with refugee attorney Mark Doss on the legal struggle against President Trump’s latest executive order.  

On Friday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order suspending the entry of refugees, non-immigrant visa holders, and American permanent residents from seven countries with Muslim majorities.

This was apparently done without much notification to the agencies that would be implementing the order. Unsurprisingly—perhaps intentionally—chaos ensued. Travelers who had already been cleared to come to the U.S. were immediately told they could no longer do so. Those who’d already arrived at the U.S. were detained in airports across the country, sparking widespread protests that continued today.

Meanwhile, lawyers and volunteer legal professionals mobilized to help the detainees. In emergency court hearings, they got four federal courts to stay the order, stopping the travelers from being sent back. Reports have surfaced of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers not complying with these orders, handling detainees roughly, and making them relinquish their legal permanent resident status. Some have already been deported, and many others remain in custody.

Mark Doss, a supervising attorney at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), has been leading the charge on the ground at John F. Kennedy Airport. (Disclosure: Doss is also a friendly acquaintance.) One of his clients is Hameed Darweesh, an Iraqi man who worked for the U.S. military, and a plaintiff on the emergency lawsuit against the order filed in New York. In a small but significant win, Darweesh was released from the airport on Sunday.

CityLab spoke to Doss about the impact of the executive order on the ground, and the long legal battle that lies ahead.

What has the last few days has looked like for you?

We had a copy of the draft executive order on Tuesday, so we saw what was potentially coming. We had advised all of our clients who were traveling over the next few days to understand their rights, to know that they should not and could not be deported. We prepared them with letters that they could give to CPB officers, demanding that they could speak with their attorneys.

For all the individuals without [legal counsel], I can imagine it was a total shock to think you were coming back to your family, your friends, your loved ones, your job, and your house, and then to be detained, not knowing if you're going to be allowed to stay in the country.

What kind of response did you encounter from CBP when you were trying to get to your clients?

It seemed pretty clear that there was no guidance provided to the officers admitting refugees and immigrants. There was just total chaos. When we were trying to access our clients, we were denied the ability to do so. When we tried to speak with the supervisor, one of the officers said, “Call Mr. Trump."

When we eventually did speak with a supervisor that was on site, the officer said, "We're waiting on a lot of paperwork from Washington. It’s a Saturday. You know how Saturdays are. It’s slow." That, by itself, is outrageous. Because it’s a weekend, the government can’t issue or figure out its own executive order?

Talk about some preliminary wins you’ve had, and what lies ahead.

Our clients were released from illegal detention. Several courts around the country ordered that Trump’s executive order be stayed. What that means is that it should not be enforced until further notice. We are getting reports that not all airports and ports of entry are respecting that, so we still have volunteer attorneys making sure that people are not being put back on planes.

In terms of the longer battle, we want this entire executive order to be rescinded. It’s unconstitutional. It’s in violation of due process and equal protection under the law. We are in it for the long haul.

How much did the airport protests help?

The protestors have been incredible. It’s really great to see so many people coming to airports all over the country in support of refugees, in support of visa holders, immigrants, and Muslims. I think they have put a lot of pressure on CBP.

It’s great to have a lot of pressure points, obviously—not just protests but litigation that IRAP filed along with ACLU and other organizations, as well as congressional outreach. We are encouraging congressional representatives to show up at airports, and demand the release of people who are being detained. We want people, if they’re not able to go out and protest, to call their representatives and demand that they take action. All of these different things have to come together to hold this new administration accountable.

How sound is the argument in the order that banning the entry of these people is in the interests of national security?

The president and the executive branch has a lot of authority when it comes to immigration, but that does not mean that they can violate the Constitution. We have fundamental rights, not discriminating based on religion or race or national origin. Even if the president signs an executive order, that does not mean that it is legal. His executive order, by targeting this population, is unconstitutional. Even though he doesn’t use the word “Muslim” in his executive order, all of his rhetoric leading up to it, all of his rhetoric even after it has been signed, indicates that this is a ban based on religion.

Is this in our national interest? It’s absolutely not. In fact, it’s irresponsible, if we are thinking about our national security. The message that these terrorists send and ISIS sends is that America is against Islam. By issuing an executive order targeting Muslims, they are just playing right into the hands of these terrorist groups.

Our clients are fleeing from terrorist groups—they are the persecuted, not the persecutors. They have not chosen to willingly flee their countries of origin—they were forced to do so. Many have gone through a years-long process to finally make it to the United States: multiple interviews, numerous security checks, biometric evaluation, everything. They are the most vetted individuals coming into the United States. They’re not just hopping on a plane and coming here—it takes years to get here.

What impact would this kind of ban, if implemented, have on cities across the country?

Refugees and immigrants are part of the fabric of every city in America. When you don’t allow people in, you are taking away the life of those cities. This executive order is breaking up families that have been living together, students who have been studying for years at universities, businesses that are run by immigrants. It’s just a devastating effect on the local community.

When the president makes these very discriminatory and hurtful statements, and signs an executive order like this, it’s clear that he is not thinking about the local level. He’s not thinking about how cities are made up, and about the families in those cities.

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