Chaos and Fear in the Wake of Trump’s Executive Orders

By Anne Knight

Lawyers staff a free legal clinic at JFK during the chaotic implementation of Executive Order 13769. Photo by Anne Knight.

I am a corporate lawyer in New York with experience working pro bono on asylum cases and refugee issues. When the Executive Order restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and temporarily suspending admission of all refugees went into effect, I joined a group of lawyers and other volunteers at JFK Airport in New York.  We ran a round-the-clock free legal clinic in JFK’s main terminal for 10 days, which is now being managed offsite. The clinic started organically in the first 24 hours after the Executive Order was signed, as immigration and other lawyers, representatives from immigration nonprofits and other volunteers began to gather at JFK to help affected travelers. Some volunteers heard that lawyers and translators were needed through word of mouth, social media or news reports, but others decided to go to the airport unsure who else was there to help, but knowing that being on the ground was the best way to coordinate efforts and make contact with families waiting for their loved ones. I first headed to JFK the day after the Executive Order was signed because I happened to see a news report about lawyers who had camped out in the arrivals area of the main terminal with signs offering free legal help. By the time I arrived at the airport that day, the protest outside was so large that the police had closed public access to the terminal, so I joined the protestors outside. I returned the following day. By then, the group had set up an online volunteer sign up system, hotlines and a website, formed a steering committee, decided on a name (“No Ban JFK”) and convinced the Port Authority to let them work indefinitely in a cordoned-off area.

Anne Knight holds signs announcing the legal clinic to arriving passengers at JFK.

Our work at JFK has been varied.  Many lawyers and translators were (and still are) posted at each international terminal with signs in English, Arabic, Farsi and Urdu asking travelers if they or a relative had been detained or had seen anyone else detained.  Other lawyers fielded our phone and email hotlines, advising people outside the United States concerned about being allowed to return, people inside the U.S. concerned about future travel, and others trying to understand how the Executive Order affected them. We also had a legal team drafting habeas corpus petitions, which they filed after a traveler was held by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) for more than six hours. Another team monitored flights and flight arrival times, so we could prioritize flights likely to be carrying affected travelers and keep track of how long travelers were being detained. Our social media team promoted our efforts so affected travelers and their families would know we were available to assist. Once the complete stay of the ban went into effect on February 3rd, we launched social media campaigns directed at airlines that were violating the stay by not permitting travelers to board planes to the U.S.  Our tech team created online intake forms and spreadsheets and centralized the hundreds of pages of legal documents and manuals with advice for travelers that volunteer lawyers had drafted.  All of these efforts relied on real time reports we received from hundreds of travelers, travelers’ family members and friends, and others around the world through our hotlines, social media, and in-person contacts. All of our work was coordinated out of a tiny corner of a JFK arrivals area, on scores of laptops and smart phones, using borrowed or donated printers, scanners and server space, and powered by an intricate maze of power strips, gallons of coffee and hundreds of pounds of donated food.

We assisted numerous travelers from the seven banned countries (for the most part, green card and visa holders traveling under passports from the seven countries, but also U.S. citizens born in the seven countries or traveling from the seven countries) who were held by CBP for hours and questioned about their background, travel, and religious and political beliefs before being released. In several of these cases, CBP demanded to examine content on travelers’ phones and laptops. While travelers were questioned by CBP, much of our information came from concerned relatives and friends waiting in the airport, because we were not permitted in the restricted area where CBP detains and questions travelers.

Chicago O’Hare, 1/28/17” by Amy Guth. CC BY 2.0.

It has been well documented that the rollout of the Executive Order caused chaos at airports around the world, as federal employees and airlines struggled to interpret and implement its vague provisions.  It has also been well documented that the rollout resulted in uneven application of the Executive Order’s provisions to travelers and in travelers being treated inhumanely while in detention.  We faced all of these issues at JFK, especially during the first few days, but what we saw more of—even 10 days in—was the fear experienced by everyone who sought our help: those whose immigration status and travel were affected by the Executive Order; as well as others whose immigration status and travel (at least in theory) were not affected, but who, nevertheless, were held for questioning for hours. There were also those who were afraid to travel to or from the U.S. because of their connections to or ethnic roots in the seven banned countries or other Muslim-majority countries.

I don’t think that with the passage of time, a revised Executive Order, or a final federal court decision on the merits of the order will do much to alleviate this well-founded fear of the impact of the President’s immigration policies.  Refugees and immigrants will continue to suffer as the administration further rolls out and refines these policies, which means that “first responder” lawyers, like myself and my co-volunteers at JFK, must stay involved.  The good news is that the airport clinics that popped up within hours at every major international airport in the U.S. have now trained and coordinated hundreds of first responders and provided them with the tools and support to rapidly, efficiently, and effectively respond to future emergencies.  I have worked pro bono on immigration issues for many years, and I have never seen so many volunteers—both newcomers and veterans—this eager and truly prepared to help. That gives me a lot of hope.

fullsizerenderAnne Knight is a corporate lawyer in New York City who also focuses on pro bono asylum and refugee work.  She is a volunteer with “No Ban JFK,” which is part of the national “No Ban USA” movement, a volunteer group of lawyers, translators and other passionate individuals working at international airports across the United States to efficiently coordinate efforts to help those affected by the ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries.  Information about “No Ban JFK” and “No Ban USA” can be found at

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