Rewind 2017: #LetThemIn
In this series of blog posts called Rewind 2017, we’re taking a look back at some of the highlights and the challenges of defending civil liberties over the last 12 months.
A week into the Trump administration, all of us around the ACLU-PA offices were waiting for any of numerous shoes to drop. We knew that we were in for the fight of our lives to protect civil liberties. It was only a question of which struggle we’d have to handle first.
On Friday, January 27, we got our answer. The administration had issued a prohibition on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries — Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. No one had clarity on how this ban would be implemented — and, as it turned out, the Department of Homeland Security didn’t either. But our national office was ready to go with litigation to challenge the order as unconstitutional and a violation of federal statute.
Then on Saturday, the emails and text messages and phone calls started trickling in, first to our lawyers and then to other staff: People who were in-flight when the ban was ordered were refused entry and being detained at Philadelphia International Airport. We learned later that these travelers were given an impossible choice — get on a flight back to their country of origin or spend the night in jail in Delaware County.
Our legal team sprang into action, including one of our staff attorneys who was on maternity leave at the time. Working with allies from HIAS-PA, the local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), cooperating attorneys from Philadelphia-based firms, government officials, and many others, we put our heads together to figure out how to address two issues. First, there were people being detained at Delaware County Prison. They needed our immediate attention to get them out. Within 24 hours, a deal was struck with the U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia to release them.
Then we had to quickly work up litigation to help the travelers who had been turned around at the airport and sent back to where their journeys started.
Meanwhile, people were hitting the streets — specifically, the street that led to the airport. Protests were breaking out across the country, including in Philadelphia, with chants of, “Let them in!” Few of us had ever seen or expected a protest at an airport. One week after the historic women’s marches, it was clear that Americans with passion for civil rights had energy to burn.
By Tuesday, we had filed a lawsuit on behalf of two families. The Asalis had sold most of their belongings in Syria and were planning a new life in Allentown, Pa., where they would join extended family who had lived in the United States for several decades. Our litigation also included an Iranian mother who was traveling to the U.S. to visit her daughters, who are students here. When given the choice to go back or go to jail, they chose to go back, despite valid visas that should have allowed them to enter.
That lawsuit was resolved quickly. With intervention from Congressman Charlie Dent, a Republican from Allentown, the Asalis were finally able to enter the United States. Later, our other client, the mom from Iran, was able to return to visit her daughters.
The saga of the Muslim ban went on and continues today. Courts around the country ruled against the Trump administration, so the president revised it and revised it again. Unfortunately, earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the third iteration of the ban to go into effect while challenges to it continue to weave their way through the judicial system.
We sometimes refer to these executive orders as Muslim Ban 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0. But this product doesn’t get better with revisions. It is still unconstitutional and harmful, as it was the day Trump first issued it. We’ll see him in court.