(Reuters) - Priya Gandhi, an in-house lawyer for an insurance company, was sitting on her couch last Saturday night, watching news reports of demonstrators at New York’s JFK Airport protest the Trump administration’s new immigration policy. “It ignited something inside me,” she said. “I felt like: I’m going to go out there. I’m going to do what I can do.”
Gandhi sent out a blast to bilingual friends who might be able to work as translators for detained immigrants and their families. Fifteen quickly volunteered, she said. She made a list of names and on Sunday morning, she and a friend brought the list and their laptops to the arrival area for JFK’s Terminal 4, where an ad hoc law firm sprang up this weekend to help travelers detained under the new policy. At 10:30 Sunday morning Gandhi and her friend were shrugging off their coats and introducing themselves. By 11, Gandhi was typing on her laptop alongside three other young lawyers, all of them drafting motions for temporary restraining orders. “I don’t care what my company thinks,” she told me. “You have to put human decency first.”
That was the prevailing spirit at Terminal 4 on Sunday morning. Dozens of mostly young lawyers milled around a diner in the arrivals area amid coffee cups, donut boxes and containers of trail mix. “We’re overloaded on donuts,” said Melissa Trent, who heard about the call for lawyers from a friend at the International Refugee Assistance Project. Trent works for a non-profit but volunteered on her own. She arrived at the airport on Saturday afternoon, spent the night at Terminal 4 and by Sunday morning was acting as a spokesperson for the lawyers clustered at the diner. “I’m proud of these lawyers,” she told me. “I feel this is what our profession is about. It’s our duty.”
Seguin Strohmeier of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton also spent the night at the terminal. Strohmeier told me she headed to the airport on Saturday, as soon as she found out the International Refugee Assistance Project was looking for volunteers to represent detainees. “It seemed like an imperative, for someone practicing law, to be here,” she said. At first, lawyers didn’t even know who had been detained under the Trump policy. They walked around JFK’s international arrival areas carrying signs in Arabic and English, hoping family members would spot them and ask for help.
Cleary volunteers, led by pro bono coordinator Jennifer Kroman, filed habeas petitions for four detainees. By Sunday morning, the firm had obtained the release of two of its clients. One was still detained behind the Customs and Border Protection barrier. Cleary’s fourth client, a doctor at the Cleveland Clinic whose passport is from Sudan, was diverted back to Saudi Arabia, despite an order Saturday night from U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly of Brooklyn to halt the deportation of travelers detained under the Trump administration policy.
“I keep thinking about that, going on vacation and not being able to come home,” Cleary’s Kroman said. (Cleary was just one of the big firms whose lawyers showed up at Terminal 4. Others included Hogan Lovells, Davis Polk & Wardwell, Kirkland & Ellis and Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison.)
A sign at the unmanned check-in table for volunteer lawyers provided wifi login information and a password for a file-sharing site with templates for habeas petitions and other filings. Lawyers otherwise had to figure out what to do.
Laura Berger, a litigator for City Bar Justice Center, showed up Sunday morning in response to a 3 a.m. email from the Urban Justice Center. She told me she figured she would put to use her immigration law experience. Instead, she ended up helping the impromptu Terminal 4 team write a press release. “It’s controlled chaos,” Berger said.
Friends and family of the travelers still in detention drifted in and out of the lawyers’ realm, though lawyers had little information about when or whether particular detainees would be released. The pen outside the diner emptied when Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn Democrat, showed up at the terminal. Surrounded by tired lawyers mostly in weekend clothes, the congressman looked notably crisp and official.
During Jeffries’ consultation with border control agents, a rumor swept through the crowd of lawyers around the congressman that all of the remaining detainees were to be released momentarily. That turned out not to be true. But officials allowed one detained traveler out. He crossed the threshold into the din of the Terminal 4. A woman in a headscarf ran to hug him.
The lawyers parted to make way, clapping and smiling at this happy reunion. Cleary’s Jen Kroman watched as the detainee walked away with his family. She had tears in her eyes.