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How a President's Immigration Order Mobilized Big Law

1 February 2017
American Lawyer

Hameed Khalid Darweesh became the face of the legal resistance to President Donald Trump's immigration order this week, with his chaotic release from detention at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Saturday splashed across newspapers and television screens worldwide. But according to his lawyer, Darweesh would have arrived in the country before the president's order was signed if not for the unintended effects of an act of American generosity,

"It was luck of the draw, wrong place, wrong time," said Jonathan Polonsky, senior counsel at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, who represented Darweesh pro bono in applying for a special immigration visa and then in a federal court case challenging his detention.

As it happened, a law student at the City University of New York, Greg Fries, working with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and Polonsky, used his own credit card to pay for the $6,000 flight for Darweesh and his family. Because the credit card was issued in the United States and didn't bear any of the five Iraqi passengers' names, the transaction was blocked and the family missed its intended flight, Polonsky said.

"If he had landed earlier, you would have not heard anything" about Darweesh, Polonsky said, noting that Trump's executive order temporarily barring refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries was signed at 4:45 p.m. on Jan. 27. Darweesh's flight landed at JFK at around 6:00, he said.

For the past two years, Polonsky and two law students at the CUNY law school chapter of IRAP were advising Darweesh on his special immigrant visa, available to those who worked with the U.S. Armed Forces or under Chief of Mission authority as a translator or interpreter in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Darweesh had faced a series of death threats for his work as an interpreter for the U.S. government, including finding a bomb attached to an electric generator in his family's house in Iraq, followed by a car explosion in front of his home. "The jihadists twice tried to kill him," Polonsky said.

When Darweesh was detained, Polonsky and his CUNY law students were already at JFK to help the family get settled in the United States.

A legal team including Yale law school students at the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization, the National Immigration Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, the Urban Justice Center and Polonsky worked to persuade a federal judge in Brooklyn to stay the effects of Trump's order. While Darweesh was released Saturday afternoon, Brooklyn federal Judge Ann Donnelly blocked part of Trump's order.

The refugee work is personal for Polonsky. His great-grandparents are refugees and his in-laws are Holocaust survivors. "I'm well aware of the unfortunate history before the second World War when Jewish refugees were not allowed into the U.S. and were sent back to Europe," he said. "Once again you have people fleeing horrible conditions, and if they cannot get in, they have a great risk of being killed. You're sending a lot of them back to their death."

Widespread response

Lawyers from dozens of major firms fanned out to airports across the country in the aftermath of the president's order. Below are highlights of their work:

• A group of 10 Hogan Lovells lawyers at JFK conducted intake interviews with detainees and drafted habeas petitions on behalf of individual refugees seeking immediate release.

Associate Rama Chehouri bought a flight to Houston so she could go through security with Haider Al-Shawi, the other named plaintiff in the Brooklyn federal court case. Al-Shawi, who is Iraqi and does not speak English, was traveling to Houston to reunite with his family.

Meanwhile, six Hogan Lovells lawyers were at a San Francisco airport as "legal observers," working to maintain peaceful protests.

• Davis Polk & Wardwell filed a habeas petition on behalf of an Iranian client in Brooklyn federal court who was ultimately released at 10:45 a.m. Sunday.

Davis Polk lawyers also scanned JFK airport for relatives of people who were detained at the airport. On Saturday night, litigation partner Avi Gesser dropped $1,200 at Central Diner in JFK to feed the large team of lawyers from law firms and nonprofits who had assembled for work there.

• Mayer Brown partners Andy Pincus and Paul Hughes worked with the Legal Aid Justice Center to represent two Yemeni men who were approved as lawful permanent residents, but were detained at Dulles International Airport and put on a plane back to Ethiopia, a firm spokesperson said. The Mayer Brown team requested a temporary restraining order. Although their clients were already on their way back to Ethiopia, a judge's order prevented the removal of lawful residents for seven days and required that lawyers had access to detainees.

Meanwhile, Mayer Brown director of pro bono activities Marcia Maack is representing a Yazidi woman who was barred from boarding a plane in Iraq to join her husband in the United States who was a translator for the U.S. Army.

• Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison sent teams to New York and Washington airports. More than 50 lawyers worked with nonprofits to help advise detained people and their families, including legal permanent residents, students and their spouses with valid visas, as well as refugees, according to a memo distributed throughout the firm.

• Latham & Watkins lawyers disbursed to airports in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Newark, Baltimore, San Diego and Chicago to help draft habeas petitions and counsel families.

• About 40 Kirkland & Ellis lawyers headed to Chicago, New York and Newark, New Jersey, airports, providing translation services. The firm also filed several habeas petitions in federal courts, a firm spokesperson said.

• Ballard Spahr partner Marjorie Peerce is representing several affected by the executive order, including an Iraqi family and a Stony Brook University student.

• Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone attorneys were on call at Detroit and Chicago airports, while Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, at an LA airport, helped IRAP, the ACLU, Public Counsel and Immigrant Defenders Law Center. Across the country, at a Newark airport, a Lowenstein Sandler attorney on Saturday monitored a demonstration to help ensure that the right to protest was respected, while Weil, Gotshal & Manges attorneys went to Logan, JFK, Newark Liberty International and Dulles airport to help anyone in need of counsel.

Reprinted with permission from the February 1, 2017 edition of The Am Law Daily © 2017 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

Related Information

  • Related People
    Andrew J. Pincus
    T +1 202 263 3220
    Paul W. Hughes
    T +1 202 263 3147
    Marcia Tavares Maack
    Director of Pro Bono Activities
    T +1 202 263 3397
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