Democracy in Crisis: Lawyers at Dulles fight for travelers trapped by Trump's 'Muslim ban'

Lawyers are huddled up, poring over papers on the floor of Dulles International Airport, outside of Washington D.C. a couple hundred feet away from the throngs of protesters cheering, chanting and welcoming home people coming out of customs from international flights.

Since Donald Trump signed a poorly considered and chaotically implemented executive order banning immigrants, refugees, and even green card holders from seven majority-Muslim countries on Friday evening—stranding people already in transit to the U.S.—these lawyers have been busting their asses.

“I could quit my job and just file Habeas writs,” one says. Her colleague laughs, wearily.

The work has been paying off, in some ways. The regime stepped back the ban on green card holders and on Saturday night a federal judge ordered a stay on the order. But Customs and Border Patrol (CBP)  officials have refused to acknowledge the stay in many airports, including Dulles, kicking off what many have called a constitutional crisis.

So the lawyers are still here.

Some hold signs asking passengers for information. Others carry pizzas and crates of bottled water.  People have already turned old pizza boxes into signs. Others make furious phone calls, file papers, read briefs.

And some talk to the press.

“Yesterday was horrific,” Mirriam Seddiq says of Saturday night at the airport, when confusion reigned and the constitutional crisis unfolded. She says things calmed down a lot on Sunday.

“I think that’s because today, since Trump is big on optics, [the plan] is not to let them on planes. So they’re not letting them on the plane or they’re taking them off at layovers. A lot of them in Turkey are being taken off. In Munich. Again these are all the stories. We don’t have any direct information,” she says.

They don’t have information because U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have denied those being held a right to counsel—even after the court order.  

“We had lawyers go and try to knock on the door at about 9:30 this morning and nobody would answer the door,” Seddiq says. “A little after that at about 10:00 we sent three lawyers back and they talked to them and said ‘here’s a copy of our [Temporary Restraining Order or stay]. Are you actually holding green card holders? Can we speak with them? We’re attorneys. And they said, ‘It ain’t gonna happen.’”

According to Seddiq, when the lawyers again pointed to the court order the CBP agents were nice and polite but said “We understand but it’s not going to happen... we are not allowed to talk to you. Here’s our number for public affairs.”

Although New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was allowed back to see those detained on Saturday night, five members of congress—Representatives John Delaney and Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Don Beyer, Gerry Connolly, and Bobby Scott of Virginia—were also denied access on Sunday as they urged CBP to enforce the court order.

Dan Press, another lawyer on the scene, says that there is a separate litigation team working on compliance with the court order. “We’ve been in touch all day with the U.S. attorney’s office which is representing the CBP. They’re on it. We’re making progress. I mean we’re not making progress on the access to counsel issue. But we’re making progress on some other issues,” he says.

“For instance on the green card holders, having the green card holder ban be lifted is a huge testament to all of the work these people have done,” Seddiq says.

“It’s the lawyers and it’s the demonstrators,” Press adds.

“Because this administration is big on optics and big numbers,” Seddiq says.

“There were big numbers right outside of Trump hotel today. Big numbers in airports around the country yesterday and today and DHS [Department of Homeland Security] blinked,” Press says.

“At least they’re not putting them back on a plane and turning them around unless they chose to do that,” Press says of the small victories. “But they’re still not being given the right to counsel to advise them given this whether they should turn around and go home or go hang out at Farmville indefinitely [in a vetting facility]."

He adds a warning to anyone, even green card holders, who might have plans to travel outside of the country. “I would still advise any green card holder who is here not to leave,” he says. “I am not convinced that any policy with this administration right now is firm enough that we can say it’s safe to go to Canada and come back.

As the last of the international flights expected to have residents from the seven banned countries aboard come into the airport late on Sunday night, everyone in the airport is acutely aware that the fight is far from over.  

Seddiq says the lawyers will be there as long as it takes. “You can see how many lawyers we have here. Some are immigration lawyers trained in immigration law. A lot of them are not. It doesn’t matter to us right now. We have the support here to keep this up as needed,” she says.

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