By Mary Gay Scanlon
The first text came Saturday afternoon. “We need legal help at the Philadelphia airport.“ Two families of Syrian refugees, who had undergone years of vetting before being given US visas, were being denied entry at the Philadelphia airport.
Two days earlier, just after his inauguration, President Donald Trump had instituted the first of his travel bans, abruptly barring entry to the U.S. by people from seven predominately Muslim countries. With the stroke of a Sharpie, Trump signed an executive order that plunged our immigration system into chaos and cruelty. And over the last three years, it’s only gotten worse.
The travel ban was designed to make good on Trump’s Islamophobic campaign pledge to ban members of the Muslim religion from the U.S. as presumptive terrorists. Ironically, the two Syrian families denied entry in Philadelphia were members of a Christian minority whom the President had pledged to protect when he courted evangelical voters.
Trump’s travel ban was rolled out without consultation from any of the relevant agencies or the law, and was based upon fundamental misinformation regarding our immigration system.
Agencies charged with enforcing the order did not know it was coming or how to respond. Hundreds of people boarded flights overseas with valid immigration papers which had required months, and in some cases years, of screening and planning, only to arrive in the U.S. to find that their documents had been invalidated while they were in the air. And the terms of the order were so blatantly illegal that it was almost instantly suspended by multiple courts and was eventually withdrawn by the president.
That weekend will forever be seared in my memory. As lead pro-bono counsel for a major law firm, I had been part of a national network of immigration advocates coordinating pro bono legal services for immigrants fleeing violence and poverty around the world for over a decade.
After the initial texts from Philadelphia, my phone “blew up” with texts and emails from advocates around the country offering to help, to translate, to wage legal battles to protect lawful immigrants caught in the crosshairs of the president’s illegitimate order.
As heartbreaking stories of families being deported or separated began to spread, protesters amassed outside airports in the middle of the night to decry the inhumanity of the president’s order.
Simultaneously, pro-bono lawyers assumed the roles of “first responders ” – to pull the families being illegally excluded to safety.
For several days, my colleagues and I worked around the clock as we deployed volunteers, developed IT tools and legal arguments, and created a system to address the chaos and terror wrought by the travel ban. But we were sustained and heartened in our work by the widespread, instant recognition by Americans that the travel ban was fundamentally wrong, and our faith in the rule of law.
The chaos and cruelty of the travel ban were just the start.
In the three years since, we’ve seen the Trump administration double down on efforts to demonize immigrants, tearing children from their parents, subjecting desperate refugees to unspeakable conditions by manipulating existing immigration policies and agencies, and creating new policies that have repeatedly failed to survive legal challenges.
This administration has defied international law, American ideals and common decency in pursuit of bigotry and fear mongering for the president’s own political ends.
As we see reporting that an expansion of the travel ban might be on the horizon, I am horrified at the thought of the trauma that even more immigrant families will have to endure. I am hopeful that our communities will come together, once again, to push back against this administration’s inhumanity.
We must continue to demand better from our country, whether in the streets or at the ballot box. The alternative, that we are doomed to exist in a dystopian swamp, is unacceptable and completely contrary to the faith of our founding fathers who urged us “to form a more perfect union.”
We cannot become numb to the injustices we witness every day. We must have the collective courage — at this moment — to demand that our country protect the most vulnerable in our midst, and that we uphold the highest ideals of our Constitution and the rule of law.
U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, is vice-chairwoman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, and represents the Delaware County-based 5th Congressional District. She writes from Washington D.C.