Legal activists volunteer in fight against Trump travel ban | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 05.02.2017
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United States

Legal activists volunteer in fight against Trump travel ban

A US attorney puts the travel ban to the test on return from Europe. He is one of many US legal activists offering free counsel to those affected by the ban and its aftermath.

Vivek Narayanadas was anticipating that his trip home from Brussels would be an eventful one.  The data-protection officer for a US tech company had arrived in the Belgian capital one day before President Donald Trump declared a travel ban on citizens of seven countries.

In his free time outside his meetings with European colleagues, Narayanadas was becoming increasingly alarmed by what was happening stateside, informed also by the activities of his wife, Pooja Dadhania, a refugee lawyer with Georgetown University's Center for Applied Legal Studies, an asylum clinic. An attorney himself, Narayanadas helps out on refugee issues pro bono, with his company's blessing.  And by the time he was packing to head home Friday, he was a man on a mission.

Brüssel, Vivek Narayanadas (DW/T. Schultz)

Data-protection attorney Vivek Narayanadas used a Brussels flight to test immigration authorities and the travel ban

Traveling attorney does transatlantic test

"I've always been told I look Iraqi," Narayanadas laughed. With Iraq as one of the seven countries whose citizens were blocked from entering the US, he planned to make use of his dark complexion and hair to get an inside look at how border authorities are treating travelers. As an American citizen, Narayanadas wasn't worried the visa cancellations and boarding rejections would affect his ability to get into the US, but he wanted to help those whose lives were being severely disrupted by the executive order. The fact that the ban had already been resisted in some airports didn't assuage Narayanadas' concerns.

Despite having the right to go through the "Global Entry" fast-track security check, Narayanadas dressed down and took the regular queue so he could do some "profiling" of his own, scoping out travelers who looked like they might be coming from a country the Trump Administration has blocked and who might therefore face trouble on the ground. He was prepared to call out officers if their questions overstepped what was legal and he was carrying paperwork to offer to anyone who needed it, which would effectively provide them with legal representation on the spot.

"I've done constitutional work so I have an understanding of the ability to push back," he explained. "Most people aren't in that position, so the idea is that someone with the knowledge of where that line is being drawn - and whether it's being pushed - can then take that knowledge, go out and then push in the courts to have the line moved back to where it really should be." 

Waiting on the other side at Dulles Airport were experts who work with Narayanadas' wife, Pooja Dadhania: the International Refugee Assistance Project and the "Dulles Justice Coalition" of attorneys, advocates, and legal services organizations. "We are relying on people who are going through the immigration process to gather information for us because we are receiving either no information or incorrect information from the government," Dadhania explained. "We are relying on them to be our eyes and ears in the immigration lines, because the government is not allowing lawyers to meet with people being held. Many volunteers are at the airport every day, collecting this data from passengers arriving from abroad, because it is our only way to find out what is happening" in order to challenge it in court.

She said that dual nationals, who were ultimately exempted from the ban, as well as Muslims from states other than the seven barred countries, were being subjected to prolonged questioning. These included disabled individuals, children, and the elderly, Dadhania said, calling these actions "unacceptable and unprecedented." She said she had spoken first-hand with an "elderly Iranian couple with green cards" who were held at Dulles Airport for over seven hours and a US citizen of North African descent who "was pressured to give immigration officials the code to unlock his phone."

In the end, Narayandaras' trip home from Brussels was anti-climactic.  The ban was suspended as he crossed the Atlantic. He landed to find President Trump tweeting furiously that he was going to fight the reversal. "I did not see anything myself," he reported upon arrival, "and was not asked any problematic questions or otherwise given any trouble." 

He found out later that despite his hanging back upon arrival and trying to observe whether other travelers were subjected to extra restrictions, a legal US resident of Iranian origin had actually been taken into "secondary screening" and detained for an hour and a half, but released.

Narayanadas went home and slept a few hours and then went back to the airport to offer free help to anyone who didn't have such a smooth trip.

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