When Molly Lauterback ’10, immigrant practice lawyer at Brooklyn Defender Services, went to JFK to join the protest against President Donald Trump’s executive order, she was not expecting to defend an Iraqi citizen who had come to the U.S. to see her son for the first time in five years.
“When I got to Terminal 4, there was a makeshift area where there were a few lawyers and International Refugee Assistance Project and they’ve been doing this amazing work taking the lead on the fallout of the executive order,” Lauterback said. “At that point, there were not as many lawyers there and not that many immigration lawyers, so when I got there, I was quickly assigned [to the Iraqi citizen’s case].”
Lauterback described the process as chaotic and unorganized as lawyers “scrambled for ways to insure that U.S. Customs and Border Protection would keep [the detainees] at the airport and not put them back on the plane.”
“There was so much confusion at that point,” Lauterback said. “When I talked to CBP, they said that there was nothing that they could do and that they were putting her back on the 9:30 plane.”
Even after Lauterback and a team of lawyers had drafted the Habeas petition and got the judge’s grant to let her client stay, CBP insisted they “have to wait for orders from headquarters.”
It was with the help of four congressmen who came to the airport and advocated for the detainees that CBP finally halted the deportation. Among them, Lauterback said Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) was especially instrumental in coordinating their efforts with CBP.
“It was just chaos,” Lauterback said. “Congressmen would come out and they would go back in, and CBP finally said that they’re not deporting anyone tonight.”
When the detainees finally were released the next day, Lauterback described the event as “very big and emotional, especially when [the lawyers] heard how they were being treated.”
“This was all ostensibly solely so [the detainees] could be reprocessed,” Lauterback said. “They’ve all already been issued proper immigration documents to begin with. It was really kind of this paper-pushing, and to watch people abused like this was a pretty traumatic thing to witness, and even more traumatic to go through.”
While the infrastructure connecting clients to lawyers at the JFK airport is much more organized now, Lauterback said the Brooklyn Defender Services — a public organization that represents people who cannot afford an attorney — along with other organizations is still trying to find the most effective way to help as many clients as possible.
“We are trying to figure out the best way to respond to the crisis and responses to the upcoming orders that might be put in place,” Lauterback said. “It’s a combination of being really flexible and using what we have in the best way possible.”