The attorneys were there in force, for hours far outnumbering the people they were trying to help. Many had name tags that identified them as lawyers, and even on a Saturday evening, they were dressed in suit jackets and button downs. Some saw a call for attorneys on social media; others were on a listserv that blasted out details. Still others filled out a Google Doc with their information and were routed to the airport nearest them.
The army of attorneys had been marshaled by the International Refugee Assistance Project, but the lawyers I met all came from different organizations. Some had private immigration practices, others didn’t practice immigration law at all. Some just turned up on their own, without knowing something was being organized, and they joined the throng.
When news that a judge in New York had granted a stay came in, just before 9 p.m., the lawyers were jazzed—but they still knew little. “They need to let us back there now!” one said. A colleague wanted to know when that would actually happen. “Soon. But soon is a relative term.”
“This response is really just sort of organic,” said Judah Ariel, who was serving as the point of contact for arriving lawyers. “We’ve been having to coordinate it ourselves. There’s a ton of uncertainty, so a lot of what we’ve been doing today is to try and figure out what’s going on.”
Nobody knew just how many people were being held on the other side of the wall. Some lawyers guessed that there were between 50 and 60 people being detained—but that was before another flight came in from Istanbul. Since then, it appears that several Iranian green-card holders were released.
It appeared that most of those in detention were people with green cards or visas. That could be because refugees usually arrive on weekdays, an employee at a refugee-rights organization said. It could also be that refugees weren't even allowed on U.S.-bound planes, said a lawyer.
Without access to the detainees, the lawyers couldn’t do much. They were trying to get in touch with people being held through family members who were allowed through. “We want to make sure that they don’t sign anything,” said Mirriam Seddiq, an immigration attorney based in Maryland. “And if they try to put you on a plane to go back, sit your ass on the floor.”
Many of the people who showed up in the arrivals hall Saturday night—attorneys or demonstrators—were particularly shocked that green-card and visa holders were being detained. “They live here,” said Ariel. “Permanently. I just can’t imagine being on a business trip or visiting a family member and, all of a sudden, finding out that, oh, by the way, you’re not allowed back home.”
A young couple stood near the swarm of lawyers, but turned to cheer the passengers making their way through the tunnel of demonstrators. I asked them why they’d come. “As Iranian immigrant refugees, it’s our duty to come,” said Asad Saghafi, whose hair was pulled back into a short bun. He’d come along with his fiancée, Javaneh Pourkarim, who offered her services as a lawyer to the coordinators. After someone took down her information, the two gravitated back toward the protesters.