Lawyer Who Fought for Detainees After the Muslim Ban on How to Fight for Justice

Camille Mackler was one of the first lawyers on the ground at JFK airport to help those detained in the hours after Trump first announced his travel ban.
Photo courtesy Camille Mackler.

You Know Who Rules? is Broadly's December interview series highlighting women and non-binary people who accomplished incredible things during the dumpster fire of a year that was 2017.

Shortly after his inauguration in January, President Donald Trump announced Executive Order 13769, also known as the "Muslim ban" or "travel ban," barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.


Immediately after the announcement, lawyers, along with thousands of activists, began pouring into airports in an attempt to help those detained. Camille Mackler, the Director of Immigration Legal Policy at the non-profit advocacy group New York Immigration Coalition, was one of the first lawyers on the ground at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City.

This week, the Supreme Court allowed for a version of Trump's travel ban to go into effect while legal challenges continue. Broadly spoke to Mackler about those early days fighting the Trump administration at JFK airport, what changes have happened in immigration legal proceedings since then, and what advice she has for continuing the fight.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In January, you are one of the first lawyers that mobilized other lawyers to get to JFK after the Muslim Ban was announced on Friday, January 27.

Yes, it's true that I mobilized lawyers to JFK, but it was sort of like waving an open flame next to a box of dynamite. It wasn't a very difficult thing to do. I headed out to JFK when I woke up Saturday on the morning of the 28 because I saw the news alert about people being detained and thought there must be more than just these people.

So I went out there and everything sort of grew. I created a message and sent it out to a couple of friends as I was driving. We were also calling a lot of people and then when we got there there was no one but word had started to grow. Lawyers had the same reaction as I did and by mid-afternoon the first day we were putting out calls and by that evening we were trying to set up a rudimentary system of organizing. By Sunday we were organized, people know what roles they were playing, what they were doing, what we needed set up, that we needed a volunteer sign up system, and that we needed documents.


BROADLY: Looking back at the past year, is [your time at JFK] what you're most proud of?

MACKLER: Tough question. I'm very proud of it for very specific reasons. On a personal level I proved a lot to myself. I don't know that I'd ever walked around wondering what I would do in a complete crisis, but at least now I show up. I'm also really proud of the lawyers because this isn't a profession where we usually act this way and it's not a profession that's known for liking to do things in a completely new by the seat of your pants kind of way.

This year, all of us lawyers have done some really great stuff this year and I think that JFK proved to us that we could do it.

Has your day-to-day changed in 2017 in your role as immigration legal policy director for New York Immigration Coalition?

I think there's been a lot of putting out fires, but the overarching theme to my year has been bringing lawyers together and forging collaboration and encouraging communication where there was none. Lawyers, at least in New York, are working together, communicating with each other, and being really supportive of each other in ways I’ve never seen happen before.

"We've tackled DACA, we've tackled gang issues, a lot of different things. I think that happened because JFK happened; it showed us that we could do this and that we could be something powerful."

Maybe part of that is that we're united against a common adversary. But there's also the fact that these problems seemed too big for one person or org to handle on their own. Since the election we had already been doing monthly calls to non profits here in New York to talk about things they're worried about. Then in January, right before JFK, we thought we needed to get together as a group and have a real legal brainstorming session. So, I set up a meeting that took place a couple weeks after the JFK things ended and we all got into a room.


I think because they had just come off of JFK and just seen the power of lawyers in numbers, I said, "We should do this regularly, what do you all think about starting a collaborative?" And that collaborative has continued to meet once a month. We've tackled DACA, we've tackled gang issues, a lot of different things. I think that happened because JFK happened; it showed us that we could do this and that we could be something powerful.

How has immigration legal enforcement changed under Trump’s administration?

There has been heightened enforcement, an increase in arrests, an increase in the indiscriminate nature of the arrests. I've been working on pushing back on really bad decisions that they're making on individual cases, trying to work with lawyers to get seen, and find ways to push back. For example, something we noticed at the beginning [of the administration] was that they had started to make issues of gang membership and related gang issues that seemed to be coming out of left field. So, we're trying to understand what's happening with gang enforcement and using it as a tool of immigration enforcement and then trying to highlight how that's actually leading to unfair decisions.

I'm a lawyer. I'm not an organizer, I'm not an activist. While I work for a grassroots advocacy organization my role is to be the lawyer, so what I want to happen in our legal system—which is pretty broken in the immigration world as it is— but I want to make sure it doesn't break down even more. The laws that we have, I don't like them, but the laws that we have still have to be able to work. This administration is trying to work against immigrants so I'm trying to make sure our legal system remains fair, remains balanced, and remains what we all think a legal justice system should be.


The past year has been very frustrating for many people. Has the past year brought you frustration? Maybe a bit of hope?

I don't know about frustration. Sadness. A lot of sadness, a lot of anger, and a lot of disbelief. I don't know if there's room for frustration in any of that.

I believe immigrants should be allowed to be here and the administration thinks they should all leave. In terms of hope, in my better moments, yes. I think that we're going through something very very painful right now but something that we needed to go through as a country. Conversations we've never had before around race or around gender, around discrimination, immigration, we’re having those conversations we've always managed to circumvent.

Do you have any advice for people continuing the fight?

I've been telling myself the Martin Luther King Jr. quote, "The moral arch of the universe is long but it always bends toward justice.” I’ve been keeping that in my mind's eye when things get discouraging.

I think my advice is to be honest to each other, to yourself. Be kind to yourself and to each other, and if that means stepping out of a fight for a minute, that's fine, and if it means stepping in, that's fine too. The person fighting next to you, maybe you don't agree one hundred percent with them, and that's okay too. We need members to be open and talk to each other, even if you think they're so opposed to your belief that you could never have a conversation. We have to be able to talk to each other again, and only by showing someone the respect of hearing them out and then expecting them to respect you back—we have to be able to get back to that place somehow.

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Looking toward to the new year, what goals do you have for 2018?

I'm looking forward to starting 2018 stronger than we started 2017. There was not a lot of hope at the start of 2017. There was just a lot of fear, sitting around waiting for the shoe to drop, expecting the roof and getting the whole damn house. But I think in 2018, the administration has definitely learned their lesson—you saw with the travel ban there was all this chaos at the airport.

People learned their lesson, and we did too. We're stronger, we're talking to each other more. I'm looking forward to that. I'm also looking forward to being a quarter of the way through this administration.