In the days after President Donald Trump’s first travel ban was introduced on January 27, clients streamed into Neha Vyas’ Seattle law office. Some just wanted to hear a reassuring voice. She was a lawyer, counselor and therapist all in one.
And she herself was panicked.
At times, she wondered how she could advise clients under what she said seemed to be conditions of “complete and utter chaos” created by Trump’s executive orders.
Trump introduced the second iteration of his travel ban Monday, after the first one was blocked in the courts. Unlike the first version, the new order does not include Iraq on the list of Muslim-majority countries whose citizens are temporarily blocked from entering the United States. Travelers from Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia and Sudan will be barred from obtaining visas for at least 90 days.
The people who have worked to bring stability to the lives of immigrants over the past month have had their lives upended at times in the fight against the travel ban. Attorneys and activists who oppose it say they expect an arduous battle ahead — and that they are prepared.
Here are a few of their stories:
‘Beset from all sides’
The travel ban came down as Atlanta immigration attorney Sarah Owings, 35, chair of the Georgia/Alabama chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, was working on the chapter’s Friday newsletter.
She was still digesting Trump’s first pair of executive orders on immigration, one of which called for an increase in the number of immigration enforcement officers who carry out deportations.
In a break with precedent, she said, lawyers were left scrambling to figure out how the travel ban would be interpreted and implemented. “That’s not how this happens,” Owings said. “Typically, under Obama, if you had an order, it would be released contemporaneously with policy memorandums from the heads of these agencies.”
The next morning, Owings left home around 11 a.m., heading to Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport after a colleague told her a story about a deaf immigrant without an interpreter who was possibly being detained at the airport.
Owings sent messages to colleagues on the way there and fielded messages from attorneys who wanted to volunteer and people who couldn’t locate relatives.
Members of her immigration lawyers chapter reached out to lawmakers, including Rep. John Lewis.
At Hartsfield, a growing group of attorneys found space on the ground and got to work, as lawyers were doing at other airports around the country.
Owings remembers turning to Lewis, who suggested they stage a sit-in while waiting for answers from airport officials. Lewis was nearly beaten to death marching for civil rights in Alabama.
“I said ‘Okay, so this is my first sit-in,’ ” Owings recalled saying.
Over the next few days, Owings and other attorneys paid close attention to the flurry of lawsuits challenging the ban to see which airports their clients could fly into. After a federal court in Washington state blocked the ban, they shifted focus to local immigration raids
“We were kind of beset on all sides. There was just a lot going on,” Owings said.
There was also a lot going on in her personal life. She spoke to her parents on the Sunday after the ban and learned that her grandmother, who is 92, had been unresponsive for about 45 minutes earlier in the week.
Nearly three weeks later, Owings drove eight hours to Monroe, Louisiana to see her grandmother on February 17. They spent a day together. She told her grandmother she loved her.
Then she drove back at Atlanta to plan her chapter conference and to be ready in case the new version of the ban came down that week.
“There’s no more time to miss anything that’s going on,” Owings said. The last month has been like “a marathon with no clear path to the end of it.”
Working seven days a week
Vyas, 44, said she wasn’t sleeping much in the first few weeks after the immigration orders. Her work load increased and she spent time reading immigration law listservs and following news reports on the ban. She said she felt like her nearly 19 years of immigration law experience flew out the window.
But she set a routine of going to bed earlier, and has stuck to it.
‘I’m getting up at 5 a.m. so that I can actually crack open the laptop to get work done,” said Vyas, who represents immigrant survivors of crime and asylum seekers. “And I am pretty much working seven days a week.”
Now she is glad for those years of experience. “I think that experience now is starting to kick in where now I can really try to think more critically and be more strategic for my clients,” she said.
Some clients have shown up without appointments. Her calls have more than doubled to 10 to 25 day. Sometimes one person may call multiple times, she said
“The fear has been tremendous,” she said.
One client, an Iranian native, worried about how the Trump’s pending second travel ban would impact her ability to get legal status, just wanted to hear Vyas’ voice.
“Thank you once again for your positive energy and optimism,” Vyas recalled the woman saying.
She returns more calls after hours just in case someone has been detained or needs her to ease their fears.
In hectic moments, she said she has felt as if her office was a medical facility. She found herself counseling clients, many of them asylum seekers and survivors of crime, who are already anxious and stressed out.
To alleviate her stress, she has turned to yoga and meditation.
“I feel like it’s working. I’m trying to be really disciplined and strict about doing my 10 minutes of breathing exercises every morning,” she said.
‘Never seen this level of energy’
On the day after the initial ban, Azadeh Shahshahani, a legal and advocacy director for Project South, an Atlanta-based social justice organization that works with immigrant and Muslim communities in the southeast, recalled getting roughly “a message a minute” on Facebook, on her voicemail and inbox.
Lawyers and activists wanted to help. Others passed along stories of immigrants being detained. She relayed one story to Owings, the Atlanta attorney.
“I have never really felt so overwhelmed before, at least in recent memory,” said Shahshahani, a human rights lawyer.
She said advocating for the rights of immigrants is intense and stressful work.
“You need to be able to relax for moments of time,” she said. “And I’m not alone. I think anybody doing this work just hasn’t been able to get really rest and relaxation.”
She said the Saturday after the ban was issued was intense — but the day after was uplifting.
A local activist asked her to co-organize a rally at Hartsfield, where thousands showed up to oppose the travel ban.
Some people who showed up had never been to a protest before.
“I’ve never seen this level of energy on the part of just everyday people,” she said.”People are awake and ready to come out on the streets.”
‘Just in total triage mode’
Portland immigration attorney Jennifer Morrisey and Washington DC immigration attorney Amber Murray had never worked together before last month.
The two lawyers successfully helped bring a 4-month-old Iranian baby ensnared in the initial travel ban to the United States to undergo life-saving heart surgery.
Murray, 34, who specializes in humanitarian immigration and human rights cases heard about Fatemeh’s Reshad’s story through a group called Lawyers for Good government, an organization of more than 120,000 lawyers, law students and legal activists that formed in wake of Trump’s election.
The girl was born with a common heart defect, and needed to come to the United States for essential surgery. Her family had a Feb. 5 appointment to apply for a visa at the American embassy in Dubai, but they were told appointment was canceled after the ban, Morrisey said.
Dr. Mary Seideman, an oncologist and co-founder of a medical and scientific communications and consulting company, helped the lawyers get Fatemeh’s medical records. She contacted at least a half a dozen specialists trying to find someone willing to the surgery pro-bono.
The travel ban allowed for a waiver, but there was no guidance on how to apply for the waiver or what the requirements were, Murray said.
Usually, with new immigration procedures, there would be clear directions, the attorneys said.
“We had to contact members of Congress to give us a point person to even apply for the waiver, which added another level of insanity,” Murray said.
Morrisey recalled sequestering herself in her office with the door closed for “about four business days.”
“We were just in total triage mode,” Morrisey said. “I felt like I was running on adrenaline and caffeine for about a week.”
Fatemeh was granted the waiver on February 3 — the same day a federal judge in Washington state blocked the initial ban.
On February 5, Murray and Seideman greeted Fatemeh and her family during a layover in New York, on the way to the Oregon Health & Science University’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon.
Fatemeh underwent surgery on February 17 and is recovering.
“There’s been a whole banding together of lawyers in a way that I have never seen before,” Murray said.
On Friday, Morrisey will meet Murray and Seideman in Portland. They will speak to students at Morrisey’s daughter’s all-girls school to showcase the “power of three women working together on a common cause,” Morrisey said.
They will visit Fatemeh in the hospital, and hatch a plan to work together on similar issues.
And they’ll grab dinner because, as Seideman is always reminding her new friends, they need to eat.