When news broke in January that the Trump administration had banned travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries, emails circulated among Chicago’s legal community asking attorneys to volunteer their expertise to help affected passengers coming into O’Hare. Within a couple of days, 600 had, and dozens of them at a time were stationed outside customs at the airport to assist asylum seekers, green card holders, and others concerned about potential legal challenges to their entry into this country.
That was fortunate because the ban had created mass confusion. “We had green card holders come up to us asking if their green cards were going to be revoked,” says Sufyan Sohel, an attorney in the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Lawyers were drafting petitions for habeas corpus, which challenged travelers’ extended detention, pretty much on the fly.
It became clear early on that there needed to be some structure to what started as an organic movement, so Sohel and three other local attorneys—Iman Boundaoui and Jamie Friedland, who both work at major law firms, and Matt Pryor, who works with Cook County on federal antidiscrimination compliance—led the organizing efforts. They coordinated a schedule, ensuring that a handful of attorneys, out of a pool of more than 300 active volunteers, would be on hand around the clock in the first three months following the ban. “We wanted to be at the airport and just be visible so we could publicize what we were doing and gather info from people coming off flights,” Friedland says. They also arranged for malpractice insurance and found translators who could be on call to help with any language barriers.
Attorneys are no longer stationed at the airport, though should new travel restrictions be put into place, volunteers are on reserve—and are now just a phone call away. With the help of CAIR-Chicago, the group has added a 24-hour hotline for issues that arise. “It’s a beautiful thing to see everyone spring into action,” Boundaoui says. “It’s people saying, ‘Not in our city. Not in our home. Not in Chicago.’ ”