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How volunteer lawyers inside JFK airport fought back against Trump's refugee ban

Central Diner in the middle of JFK’s Terminal 4 had turned into a makeshift legal office by 8 p.m. Saturday night. Around 30 volunteer lawyers had been huddled on laptops inside the airport restaurant since the morning, desperately trying to petition the government on behalf of the rumored dozen people detained on the other side of the customs wall by order of President Trump. Few of the lawyers were immigration experts — nearly all were corporate attorneys who had voluntarily come to the airport in response to a call for legal help from the organization International Refugee Assistance Project.


More than a thousand demonstrators had also gathered outside, carrying signs and chanting, “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here.” Distraught families, mostly speaking Arabic or Farsi, anxiously waited for their relatives in plastic chairs.

One of the volunteer lawyers was Michelle Miao, who was helping coordinate the others who had fanned out across four of the airport’s terminals. She was visibly frustrated because, she said, Customs and Border Patrol agents were not allowing any of the detainees to see or contact their families or a lawyer. Miao said she and other attorneys had adopted a strategy of staking out the terminals and looking for distressed families expecting a relative who hadn’t shown up. If the family was waiting for someone from one of the seven countries named in Trump’s ban, the lawyers would escort them to the diner area and help them file a petition on their relatives’ behalf. This was a roundabout way of practicing the law.

“From a personal standpoint as an attorney,” Maio said, “I’m really concerned that, while we’ve met with their families and we’re filing paperwork on their behalf, these individuals don’t even know they’re being represented and there’s no way for us to tell them.”

The Hussein family had been waiting at the airport since 8 a.m. for an Iraqi relative they had not seen in seven years. Iman Hussein had arrived in New York from Baghdad Saturday morning after 30 hours of travel (Trump signed his executive order while she was in the air Friday, somewhere between Qatar and JFK). She had a temporary visa to visit her family but was detained by Customs and Border Patrol after landing.


Her two daughters, Anfal and Elaf Hussein, her ex-husband, Namir Hussein, and her nephew, Amer Askar, have all been living in the New York area for years. Askar was born in Iraq but raised in New York City. He said he had served in the U.S. military for 11 years.

“I joined the military to serve this country and to make a difference in my life, my family’s life,” Askar said. When asked how he felt about the crowds outside, he shrugged. “President Trump is my commander-in-chief. I respect him.”

Namir Hussein is a 52-year-old bus driver for New Jersey Transit. He came to the U.S. from Iraq in 1995 for a “better life,” he said. He also didn’t seem too concerned with the protests unfolding outside. “People elected [Trump]; I don’t know what they thought,” he said with some resignation.

Every 20 minutes or so, a pleasantly robotic voice on the loudspeaker announced: “Welcome to John F. Kennedy airport. Welcome to New York City.”

Mitra Anoushiravani, another corporate attorney at the diner, expressed frustration that she and her colleagues were not allowed to speak with their client, an Iranian national who presumably didn’t know there was a team of American lawyers working several yards away.

By 8:30, things were not looking promising for the detainees. Two U.S. congressmen representing New York, Gregory Meeks and Adriano Espaillat, had come to the terminal to offer their help. CBP agents had agreed to meet with them to discuss the situation.


After meeting with the agents, Meeks said family members were still being questioned by border patrol and were not allowed to see any lawyers or family members. Those from the seven countries without green cards were being sent back on flights immediately while people with green cards or who were members of military families were still being “considered,” for admission to the U.S., he said.

“The CBP officers are doing their job,” Meeks told the small group of family members and reporters gathered in the terminal. “They are carrying out the federal executive order but they do not have discretion on these individual cases. It is Washington, D.C., who is making the decision on these cases.”

Anfal and Elaf Hussein had begun crying quietly.

“We have asked for a waiver of whatever the interpretation of the executive order is in these cases,” Espaillat added. “But this is very egregious stuff. These are relatives of U.S. citizens who have already been approved for a green card and this is how we welcome them.”

But moments later, cheers broke out among the lawyers and families in the diner. A federal judge in Brooklyn had granted a stay on the executive order. It took several moments to decipher the decision’s impact, but once it was clear, a palpable feeling of relief swept through the group. The temporary stay would apply to all visa and green card holders stuck in limbo in airports and flights around the country, allowing them to enter the country.


Outside, the protesters also burst into celebration. People started clapping and crying as the news of the stay made its way through the thousands in the crowd. A relative of another detainee started crying when she heard the news. “It applies to her,” she said through tears, referring to her family member who was being still being questioned.

The Husseins and their lawyers sat down on plastic chairs, several yards away from the chaos. Everyone looked exhausted but optimistic.

UPDATE (Jan. 29, 4:25 p.m.): A tweet from the scene at JFK Sunday showed Iman Hussein’s reunion with her daughters and ex-husband after her release.

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @oliviaLbecker