Attorneys come to aid of those impacted by immigration ban
By Linda Laderman
Current and former Detroit area residents are using their legal training to help those affected by the January 27 executive order that banned entry to the U.S. by citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries.
As the executive order began to take effect, Bradley Gershel, a former West Bloomfield resident and currently a defense attorney at Ballard Spahr in New York City, was watching news of the growing chaos at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
“I had an acute feeling that something had to be done, so I went to JFK to help,” Gershel said. “Most of the attorneys who were already there were not immigration attorneys but we were a group who wanted to be of use at a time when we felt absolutely compelled to do something.”
Once at the airport, Gershel said he found a “picture of confusion” since those arriving didn’t have any real sense of what the order intended, leaving customs and border control agents to interpret its meaning without any guidance from the appropriate government entities.
“It was an emergency situation, since no one had any notice and those arriving had no idea what the order meant,” Gershel said. “You can imagine the despair the people who were detained felt.”
Gershel said his firm is encouraging him and others at Ballard Spahr to continue to give their time and effort to the pro bono cause.
As part of that effort, Gershel recently advised a group of 19 rabbis who were arrested February 6 after blocking a street near Trump Tower to protest the executive order.
“It was a coordinated act of civil disobedience by the rabbis who were protesting the potential construction of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and the travel ban,” Gershel said. “I was there with three other lawyers to make sure that everything went smoothly. This was a group of clergy who had never been arrested before so they were allowed to leave that night.”
Religious education has deeply impacted his resolve to work with groups that are unfairly targeted due to their ethnicity and faith, Gershel said.
“I am Jewish. Two constant themes throughout our ancestral history are escape and perseverance,” Gershel said. “With this in mind, it felt antithetical to stand idly by while more than 134 million people were categorically barred from entering the United States, based solely on their country of origin and citizenship status.”
Like Gershel, Alex Vernon, director of Detroit Mercy Law’s Immigration Clinic, sees the needs of his clients reflected in his own background.
“I’m an immigrant twice over. My parents brought me from Jamaica to Canada, then I married a U.S. citizen. Of course my experience is nothing like that of my clients, but it has given me some perspective,” Vernon said.
When the executive order was first issued by President Donald Trump, Vernon and Susan Reed, a colleague from the Michigan Immigration Rights Center, went to Detroit Metropolitan Airport to see if anyone arriving from the banned countries needed legal advice.
“It was pretty quiet at the airport with no direct refugee arrivals. Later, we helped a physician who had gone away for the weekend and was afraid he would not be able to get back to his patients,” Vernon said. “We were not allowed to be with him when he was questioned, but he reported that they asked questions about his background, family members, travel history and so on. It took about three hours but he was admitted. By that time the White House had reversed course as far as legal permanent residents were concerned.”
Vernon said he is worried that the “collateral fallout” from the ban will create even more unease and concern among the immigrant population who are currently legal residents of the U.S.
“There is general fear and anxiety, a sense of ‘who is next,’” Vernon said. “I have had legal permanent residents and other non-immigrant visa holders from other countries express anxiety that they may be in a travel ban situation, or that their pending cases may be halted, or even that the government may be coming after them because of the information they provided in applying.”
As the situation continues to unfold, Vernon said he is troubled by remarks from the Trump administration indicating that funds to sanctuary cities should be cut.
“Most of my clients are too poor to travel, so right now I am focused on the potential for harm to sanctuary cities,” Vernon said. “My biggest concern is in the area of enforcement, with the administration pushing for enforcement everywhere, including attacks on sanctuary cities, pushes to deputize state and local police to enforce immigration laws, and presumably an advocacy of ‘self-deportation,’ or scorched earth policies designed to drive undocumented migrants out of the country through laws that attempt to prohibit people from renting them homes, giving them rides, possibly even offering them shelter and services.”