As Refugees’ Plight Worsens, a Legal Aid Group Steps up the Fight

John Muller
International Refugee Assistance Project

Word of the Fourth Circuit decision came via Twitter. That felt appropriate. The same platform that had helped fuel the Arab Spring and the political ascent of Donald Trump now carried breaking news from their collision in a Virginia courthouse all the way to Beirut, where a group of Americans huddled together in a bar, grinning triumphantly at our phones.

Five law students had traveled from NYU to Lebanon in May with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a legal aid and advocacy organization created by students at Yale Law School in 2008. When I joined IRAP, in the fall of 2016, our job had seemed straightforward: work in small teams to help refugees through the painfully slow legal process of resettling to the United States. But then came the presidential election and a pair of executive orders denying U.S. entry to immigrants from a group of Muslim-majority countries—the same countries our clients were desperate to flee.

Literally overnight, the travel ban changed the nature of IRAP’s work. On Friday, January 27, an IRAP client named Hameed Darweesh arrived at JFK Airport with a special immigrant visa in hand, only to be detained by immigration officials and threatened with unlawful deportation to Iraq. Attorneys from IRAP and elsewhere rushed to the terminal that night to help. The next morning, protesters gathered outside in a crowd that grew so massive that police blocked the entrances to the airport. Rather than dying down, the protests spread to a plaza outside the federal district courthouse in Downtown Brooklyn, where that evening Judge Ann Donnelly issued an emergency stay blocking parts of the order nationwide and allowing Darweesh into the country. It was the first in a series of legal victories IRAP would win against the ban.

During the spring semester, IRAP’s policy arm sprang into action. Students drafted research memos for the litigation efforts and led phone-call drives to keep pressure on Congress. IRAP v. Trump reached the Fourth Circuit on appeal while a simultaneous challenge to the ban gathered steam in Hawai’i. At law schools across the country, IRAP case teams kept pushing their clients’ applications forward, hoping for the best.

When finals ended, I flew to Lebanon with members from several IRAP chapters to learn about our organization’s operations in a country with over a million Syrian refugees. We received training on refugee law and the history of the Syrian conflict. We met with officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who warned of a deepening crisis, and with a U.S. diplomat who seemed embittered by his inability to help.

Then, on Thursday night, as the group unwound in a hotel bar packed with young shisha-smoking Beirutis, our phones buzzed with good news. The Fourth Circuit had roundly rejected the travel ban, which it said “drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination.” IRAP had won the appeal. I bought a beer for Justin Cox, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center who had worked for months on IRAP’s case. He skimmed gleefully through the 205-page opinion, pausing to tweet congratulations to the dedicated advocates who had helped earn the victory.

Twitter was already speculating about whether the Supreme Court would grant certiorari. But in Beirut, we had more immediate concerns. There were intake interviews scheduled for the next morning with prospective clients, Syrian refugees who came to IRAP’s office each week to try to secure a future beyond Lebanon for their families. One by one, we pocketed our phones and headed upstairs to bed. There was still a lot of work to be done.

 

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