Dispatches from SFO

Our National Security and Civil Rights attorneys posted at SFO

Our National Security and Civil Rights attorneys posted at SFO

By Elica Vafaie, National Security & Civil Rights Staff Attorney

I found out about the Executive Order (EO) banning immigrants and refugees from 7 Muslim-majority countries after we spent the day not-so-coincidentally training 120 lawyers on how to prepare for a possible Muslim registry and a ban on Muslim travel to the US. As an Iranian American, I could see the faces of my family and community who would be deeply impacted as we interpreted the EO. It was hard to catch a breath before the calls began to flood in from community members, anxious about the EO and eager for information and legal representation.  

The first consultation that Anoop, one of our immigration attorneys, and I gave took place just 2 hours after the EO was signed. Within hours we saw cases where community members’ children were being blocked from entering the U.S. The EO was so broadly written that it applied to legal permanent residents (also known as green card holders)--which falls well outside the scope of the president’s legal authority. We could only speculate how many people would be included or how quickly it would roll out. We put out some quick Know Your Rights information in English, Farsi, and Arabic, hoping it would quell some of the panic.

But by 7:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, we were inundated with calls from family members, concerned about their loved ones who were already flying into SFO. We began to coordinate with our partner organizations to develop mechanisms to get information from community members about flights that were coming in. Our National Security & Civil Rights, Immigrant Rights, and Criminal Justice Reform staff members quickly headed to SFO.

Once at the airport, we hit the ground running. We started tracking flights, meeting with families, and calculating how long community members had been detained. It was difficult to gather all of this information because we weren’t allowed to speak with our clients. We didn’t even know how many people were being detained--our repeated attempts at contacting Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials were met with silence. Along with our partner organizations, we also started providing individual consultations and provided Know Your Rights information in English and Farsi right there in the international terminal.

Meanwhile, the energy at SFO was electrifying. As the hours wore on, SFO became increasingly packed with community members holding signs, expressing outrage, and refusing to normalize this affront. I have never seen anything like it.

At around 6:00 p.m., we got word that a federal judge in New York had granted a stay, which prohibits the deportation of any permanent resident or visa holder from the 7 countries. The protesters erupted into cheers. I remember rushing to call numerous Iranian families and sharing the good news that under the national stay, their loved one could not be removed to Iran.

However, we soon realized that CBP was not complying with the judge’s order when, for example, they threatened the deportation of an elderly Iranian couple. We worked furiously to get the couple released, using every tool at our disposal. Throughout the night and into the next morning, we worked with our partners and volunteer attorneys on legal strategies. We dispatched Congressional representatives to come to SFO. We spoke to reporters about the ordeal and CBP’s flagrant violation of the stay. Protesters chanted, “Release” and “Let the lawyers in.” Because of the strong community lawyering and organizing, we were able to collectively secure the release of several individuals; the elderly couple was released after 30 hours. Dozens of others were provided with helpful information for their families.

Although the weekend was full of uncertainty and little sleep, I also witnessed beautiful moments in the airport. The synergy between the legal service providers and the community organizers created a sense of community that I had not anticipated. Throughout the weekend, people would stop by to bring food and water to the lawyers and impacted community members.

It also was incredible to work cross-program within our organization, working at the intersection of immigrant rights and Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian community issues. In the past, these movements have been seen as separate, but we are in a moment where we are actively working to bridge the two. The protesters said it best: “No Ban, No Wall, Sanctuary for All.”

Our work isn’t done yet. Although it faces numerous legal challenges, the ban is still in effect. In the meantime, we have spent the majority of the last 5 days at SFO working to ensure that no one is being detained. We also are ramping up our Know Your Rights trainings and legal services to continue reaching out to our impacted communities. We will continue to remain vigilant and use every tool from policy advocacy to litigation to direct services to protect our communities.