Feb. 2, 2017 — As confusion mounted across the nation's airports Sunday in the wake of the recent order banning immigrants from certain countries, the director of the University of Houston Law Center's Immigration Clinic, in his individual capacity, former students, and local attorneys headed to Bush Intercontinental Airport to see if they could help.
"We were an impromptu bunch of volunteer lawyers who gathered with little or no prior discussion to help families get their loved ones released from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after arriving from all over the world," said Geoffrey A. Hoffman, head of the Immigration Clinic, who worked into the night along with Rosemary Vega, a supervising attorney at the clinic. "Some of the 20 to 25 volunteers were immigration attorneys, but most were not, their expertise and practice areas ranging from civil rights, criminal defense and federal courts to commercial litigation, tax and in-house counsel."
International travelers, including those with green cards and valid visas, were questioned and some detained in the wake of the recent executive order issued on Friday. The order included a 90-day ban on travel to the U.S. by citizens of the predominantly Muslim countries of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, and a 120-day suspension of the U.S. refugee program. The president said the order was necessary to prevent "radical Islamic terrorists" from entering the country.
"We answered questions and assured families who were waiting for hours that relatives holding valid visas or green cards would be released under a nationwide stay order issued by a federal judge in New York," Hoffman explained. "We stood ready to file habeas corpus petitions in the event family members were not released or detained."
The volunteer attorneys also spoke with customs officials trying to determine the status of travelers being detained or questioned.
"Since there is no right of counsel at the border in "secondary inspection," attorneys are not permitted to meet with their clients or to review answers to questions on a new "waiver application," which apparently is now being imposed on all returning residents," Hoffman said. "The frustration was palpable in the fear, confusion and panic I saw in many of the family members."
Amid the confusion, strangers provided the volunteers with pizza, Starbucks gift cards, and cases of bottled water.
"There was a feeling of common purpose, doing good for total strangers, for people in need," Hoffman said of Sunday's volunteer effort. "The experience reminded me to never forget the spirit of our great country, its people, its lawyers, and to remember the power of the immigrants, America's source of inspiration, power and compassion."
Law Center alumni who participated include: Sanajy Bapat '14, Justen Barks' 13, Megan Daic '13, Veronica Cruz '15, Laura De La Cruz '15, Josh Hilbe '14, Maha Khalil '15, Katie Ray '14, Adam Robertson '14, Luiz Ruiz '14, Alexandra Vickery '13