Going Pro (Bono): Lawyers Provide Support Against the Muslim Ban

*By Lucianne Nelson
Time Period: 2017-2018
Location: United States
Main Actors: Immigration & constitutional law attorneys; civil rights activists; members of state and national government; business & labor leaders
– Civic Engagement
– Media Outreach
Signed Letters of Support
– Legal Aid
– Amicus Brief

Beginning in early 2017, the Trump administration issued a series of Presidential Proclamations that indefinitely banned travel to the United States from several predominantly Muslim countries. In late 2017, the administration suspended programs for refugee processing and family reunification that largely served Muslims applicants. The impact of these orders—collectively known as the “Muslim ban”—created chaos at airports across America. Individuals traveling from these countries were detained, questioned, or abruptly deported. Even some lawful permanent residents of the US were held for prolonged periods before being allowed back into the country. Others were stranded at airports, prevented from boarding flights to the United States. 

The impact of the Muslim ban triggered wide-scale protests as translators, organizers, and immigration advocates flooded airports to support travelers and family members of loved ones detained under the executive order. Business leaders such as Sergey Brin (Google) and Sam Altman (OpenAI) protested in support of detainees at their local airports while others spoke out against the executive orders and recalled their employees to the US The ban also triggered wide condemnation from universities, academics, and other public intellectuals. Editorial boards also denounced the ban. Members of Congress, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and John Lewis, joined protests in their home states as well. Over nine hundred career diplomats in the US State Department issued a memo of dissent, outlining their disapproval of the Muslim ban. 

As concerned Americans assembled at airports to protest the travel ban, so did lawyers. Hundreds of attorneys crowded at international terminals, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, and crouching on the floor with laptops, conducting legal research and writing motions to file at court. And, as the Trump administration continued to refine and implement the Muslim ban, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and partner organizations filed a series of lawsuits to challenge these immigration sanctions. Once the cases advanced through the legal system, other lawyers filed amicus briefs in opposition to the Muslim ban. These briefs provided critical perspective and expertise to the Supreme Court as it considered the constitutionality of the executive orders. Removal or deportation defense work is complicated, challenging, and time-consuming, but many of the attorneys who rallied against the Muslim ban volunteered independently and immediately. In taking on the pro bono work of defending travelers impacted by the Muslim ban, attorneys practiced civic vigilance and upheld core principles of democracy. 

The Muslim ban represents only one of many attacks against Americans’ civil rights. By publicly protesting the ban, lawyers (and activists, business leaders, Congress members, and other government actors) fulfilled a critical role in shoring up American democracy. One key lesson of the response to the Muslim ban is the power of a rapid, organic response by those with expertise in a moment of crisis, followed by a more sustained response by formal organizations. Lawyers did not wait for the bar association or the ACLU to take action but responded immediately to the impending crisis. This helped check the direct negative effects of the Muslim ban. Then, over the long-term structured organizations took the lead. Successful defense of American democracy will require both a quick immediate response to direct violations of rights, and the construction and maintenance of well-resourced advocacy organizations that can keep this response going.

Where to Learn More
The Evolution of the Muslim Ban – an Explainer
Impacts of the Muslim Ban 2019
Legal Heroes in the Trump Era: Be Inspired. Expand Your Impact. Change the World

You can access all the caselets from the Pillars of Support Project here.