Big Law Responds to Trump’s Immigration Executive Order

A group of about thirty attorneys work inside the arrivals terminal at JFK International Airport on January 30, 2017 in New York. Photo: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
A group of about thirty attorneys work inside the arrivals terminal at JFK International Airport on January 30, 2017 in New York. Photo: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
By Casey Sullivan and Stephanie Russell-Kraft, Big Law Business

It’s a busy time to be a pro bono lawyer.

After President Donald Trump issued an executive order Friday to severely limit immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations, lawyers across Big Law jumped in to help travelers, visa and green card holders, who faced uncertainty and deportation in the wake of the order that was soon followed by federal rulings staying parts of the action.

Akin Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, Davis, Polk, Hogan Lovells, and Mayer Brown represent just a sliver of the firms that had lawyers on the ground at John F. Kennedy International, Dulles and other airports assisting clients. To find clients, they have partnered with non-profits such as IRAP, which organizes law students and lawyers to offer legal aid for refugees, while tapping their existing client networks, and resorted to holding signs in airports.

On Saturday, Mayer Brown partners Paul Hughes and Andy Pincus represented two Yemeni brothers who had been detained at Dulles International Airport.

The brothers, whose father is a US citizen living in Flint, Michigan, had been approved as lawful permanent residents and were flying to the United States from Ethiopia for the first time.

But when they arrived at Dulles, they were handcuffed and coerced into voluntarily signing away their immigration status by US Customs and Border Patrol agents, according to Hughes. So he and Pincus joined Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg of the Legal Aid Justice Center to ask Virginia federal judge Leonie Brinkema for an emergency order allowing the boys, aged 19 and 21, to stay in the United States.

Judge Brinkema’s late-night order on Saturday forbade CBP agents at Dulles from deporting legal permanent residents and ordered the residents be given access to their lawyers.

But the two Yemeni brothers, it turns out, had already been put on a flight back to Ethiopia several hours before Judge Brinkema’s ruling came down. “It was a complete shock and disappointment,” said Hughes.

Now, Hughes and his co-counsel are working to get the boys back into the United States, an effort he said has been confounded by the Trump administration’s unclear and changing positions on the President’s order. “The officials both at [the Department of Homeland Security] as well as lawyers at the [Department of Justice] have been just as unclear about the state of law as we have been,” said Hughes.

Luckily for immigrants affected by Trump’s order, the partners at Mayer Brown aren’t alone. At firms around the country, pro bono lawyers are turning up in droves to help immigrants affected by Trump’s order.

At Davis Polk, partner Avi Gesser and associate Edith Beerdsen spent Saturday at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and filed a writ of habeas corpus petition in Brooklyn federal court on behalf of a 33-year-old Iranian woman visiting on a tourist visa who was detained by CBP.

The firm’s petition was part of a broader legal challenge in New York: the American Civil Liberties Union, with help from Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, also filed a class action writ of habeas corpus petition on behalf of people being detained. U.S. District Judge Ann M. Donnelly issued a stay of President Trump’s order Saturday night, and the Davis Polk client Sepideh Seyedzadeh Sabounchi was released at 10:40 a.m. Sunday morning after some work interpreting Judge Donnelly’s ruling, said Gesser.

“We all work hard, but this was really an extraordinary effort and I’m so proud of our team,” said Gesser. “Edith was there for 26 hours straight drafting papers and we had people coming at all hours and staying.” He said that Davis Polk was among six or seven other big law firms he spotted at JFK. Lawyers held up signs in foreign languages — Arabic, Farsi and others — offering legal assistance to those who were affected.

More than 20 attorneys from Hogan Lovells were also on the ground at JFK, Dulles and San Francisco International Airport, greeting refugees, drafting habeas petitions, and serving as legal observers. At JFK, associate Rama Chehouri greeted Haider Al-Shawi and worked as a translator in his flight to Houston, where he was reunited with his family Sunday morning, according to the firm.

But the fight is far from over. At Akin Gump, at least 30 lawyers are continuously working to assist clients affected by the immigration ban, said Steven Schulman, who leads the firm’s pro bono practice.

The firm has even set up a custom email for prospective immigration clients that Akin Gump may take on pro bono:

“At the very human level, knowing that you have a lawyer at your side, and that there is someone to help, is a lot easier to undergo what’s going on,” said Schulman. “That human level that’s the role of lawyers, that is sometimes overlooked, but it’s the most important part.”

Schulman has assisted a wide variety of immigration clients, including Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian academic and human rights activist who lives in the United States but was traveling in Turkey over the weekend. After some uncertainty, Ziadeh made it home to Virginia.

Of lawyers role under the recent executive order, Schulman suggested the weekend only represented chapter one. “There is still litigation to be had… There are a number of reports about family members overseas.”

In an internal memo to Paul, Weiss lawyers, dated Monday, 1:16 p.m., firm chair Brad Karp thanked his lawyers for their efforts, which consisted of descending on JFK and Dulles airports to assist people who were being detained. He said more than 50 Paul, Weiss lawyers participated, and called out several by name, including pro bono lawyers Emily Goldberg and BJ Jensen. He said the pair have “worked tirelessly (and without sleep) to organize and coordinate these efforts both internally and across several non-profit partners.”

“That work continues, and we have had teams of lawyers working in shifts around the clock,” he said, but added: “Unfortunately, there will be additional opportunities to get involved, and we will continue to keep you apprised as the need arises.”

Is your firm involved in pro bono in the wake of the immigration order? Write to us at

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