By Tahmina Watson, YES, October 21, 2020
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” Mahatma Gandhi’s famous words reverberated in my mind days after the November 2016 presidential election.
I had been serving on the Immigration Working Group for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, preparing for her first 100 days in office. I had so much hope for the first woman president that would inspire my two daughters. Hope for real immigration reform, finally. Hope for a better world.
The loss felt devastating.
After a week of crying and commiserating with friends, it dawned on me that if I could not help reform immigration laws at the federal level, I must be ready to help at the local level. Given that immigration was Trump’s key issue, community leaders as well as law and policymakers at all levels of government were going to need immigration law advice.
Within a week, I was able to create a Response Committee through my local Washington State Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, AILA WA. My immigration lawyer friends Neha Vyas and Melissa Campos as well as 30 other members joined to assist.
In the following days, we started writing memos on topics we thought might be attacked. Thank goodness we were in position. Five days after Trump’s inauguration, on Jan. 25, 2017, he signed two executive orders regarding border security and interior enforcement—paving the way for some of the most inhumane treatment of immigrants seen in modern America. But even more shocking was the travel ban that he signed into effect two days later on the evening of Friday, Jan. 27. Often called “the Muslim ban,” it prevented people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from visiting the United States, and also blocked refugees from coming into the country for, initially, a number of months. The ban also cruelly blocked entry for Syrian refugees indefinitely.
As protesters descended upon America’s airports to decry the travel ban, so did lawyers. People crowded at airports, shoulder to shoulder. Lawyers sat on the floor with their laptops, doing legal research and writing motions to file at court.
The shock and outrage were palpable.
There had been no warnings that the order would be signed, or what that would actually mean. It was effective immediately. That meant people already on planes headed to the U.S. were subject to the ban while airborne. People around the world about to embark on their flights to the U.S. were not allowed to board, causing global chaos. And people who had just landed in the U.S. were met with hostility, some hastily being sent back.
My phone and email exploded as soon as the travel ban order was signed. I took one last desperate look at my husband’s face. I don’t recall seeing him and my children for the next four days. I sat at my dining table in Seattle taking phone calls and emails from various organizations about distressed passengers who’d been impacted by the ban. I fielded requests from policymakers for legal analysis on immigration law.
Most of that week is a blur. I recall trying to find a way to create an efficient intake process for the dozens of requests rolling in. Before long I became a Google Forms ninja! Fellow Response Committee member and immigration lawyer Greg McLawson introduced me to Takao Yamada, who was leading the volunteer efforts at Sea-Tac Airport. Two technology companies had reached out wanting to help. By the next weekend, airportlawyer.org was live, connecting arriving passengers with legal representation in real time.
Amid the chaos, I reached out to AILA WA to help. More than 50 immigration lawyers stepped up to ensure that Sea-Tac Airport was staffed with legal experts.
But another problem had surfaced. People in the community were scared—not just undocumented immigrants, but legal immigrants too, as well as people of color, Muslims, and more.
I was getting frequent requests for lawyers to present at “know your rights” events and legal clinics. I became the pestering voice on our immigration lawyers chapter listserv asking people to attend various legal clinics and presentations. The requests would vary—one lawyer here, three lawyers there.
I witnessed the incredible generosity of my colleagues, who stepped up over and over to meet the demands of an unprecedented crisis. They wore their hearts on their sleeves and donated their precious time. Immigration lawyers were already contending with stresses the administration’s adverse policies placed on their existing clients and practices.
With so much being demanded of them, immigration lawyers were getting tired. But I could see the growing outrage of other lawyers who didn’t specialize in immigration, and their desire to help immigrants.
Trump was clearly on a mission to make all his campaign promises come true. You may recall that mass deportation was one such promise. My concern was that if advocacy groups suddenly asked me to provide multiple lawyers for immigration court, I would not be able to meet the demand.
Removal or deportation defense work is complicated, challenging, and time-consuming. Cases at court with detained immigrants, especially trials, go beyond the one or two hours that a typical lawyer can commit to pro bono work. They require expertise and months of preparation. I had to be ready with a solution.
In April 2017, Executive Director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle Michael Ramos asked me to come up with an arrangement for his congregation in case detentions increased. That conversation inspired me to research my strategies even further. I started to doodle charts and diagrams for a potential program that would combine the skills of both immigration and non-immigration lawyers to serve immigrants.
We heard rumors that Trump might rescind DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. By September 2017, he had done just that, through his then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
What I really wanted was a vehicle to raise funds to distribute to colleagues who were stepping up repeatedly to do pro bono work without any compensation. A blanket demand for their time and expertise was neither feasible nor fair.
After a lot of written proposals, meetings with local leaders, intense debates, and brainstorming with immigration lawyers—and with the invaluable help of my immigration lawyer friend Jay Gairson—the idea took shape. The uncertain element was where and how to house the idea. With a full-time law practice and two little girls to care for, I didn’t want to manage a second organization, especially without knowledge of the nonprofit world.
Around April 2018, we started to hear about children being separated from their parents at the border. I had vivid nightmares about children being abused in cells—or even that my own children had been taken away from me. I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t begin to imagine what the families were going through. I felt the urgency to be ready in case I needed to organize lawyers for immigration court in my local area. I realized by then that I might have to create an organization myself.
Sure enough, by June 2018, Washington state received over 200 detained immigrants from the southern border, many of them parents separated from their children. Detainees were taken to the SeaTac Federal Detention Center because the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) that houses immigrants was at full capacity. When the news was first released, Washington’s 7th Congressional District Representative and long-time immigration advocate Pramila Jayapal went to the center, a jagged gray structure just under the flight path of planes approaching Sea-Tac. She had to push her way in, but finally was able to speak to many of the detainees, including mothers separated from their children. They shared horrific stories. I knew then that I would need to provide immigration attorneys in large numbers.
On June 9, 2018, at a huge protest at the federal detention center, I ran into Erin Albanese, a corporate and nonprofit law expert I’d met at a happy hour organized by the secret lawyer mothers Facebook group, LM. At the protest, I expressed my distress at not having the nonprofit platform that I wanted for this very moment.
Once she heard the idea, she asked me, “Well, why haven’t you done it yet?”
I told her that I didn’t know how to run a nonprofit, how to set it up, and just couldn’t do it on my own, especially with my full-time job. Later that evening, we met at a kids’ play center at a local mall, where I brought my files with notes, doodles, and all the research I had accumulated. While my then-6-year-old daughter had her promised playtime, I explained to Erin that although the energy of immigration lawyers was depleted, the outrage of non-immigration lawyers was increasing. Yet without substantive training in immigration law, these lawyers were not able to provide meaningful help. She understood immediately—because she was one of them. And we’d both seen the impassioned and horrified reaction of other lawyer mothers to family separation policies.
After sitting with me for a few hours, Erin said, “Let me take the nonprofit issues off your hands so you can go do what you need to do.”
I felt like crying at that moment. For the first time, someone really understood why this organization was necessary, why it was urgent, and why this couldn’t be an offshoot of another existing nonprofit. That night, she prepared our nonprofit filing paperwork, taking what she needed from the stack of papers I had accumulated.
Airport Lawyer co-founder Takao Yamada’s entrepreneurial startup skills were exactly what we needed. Within a week, he was able to get us a logo and website with sign-up sheets for interested lawyers.
In the meantime, immigration lawyer Minda Thorward, who had been a champion from the start of the idea, agreed to serve on our board. And thus, we became the founding members of this brand-new organization called Washington Immigrant Defense Network—WIDEN. Immigration lawyers and removal defense experts Neha Vyas, Melissa Campos, and Michele Carney agreed to be our advisers. With my law firm team helping with operations, we were off the ground.
Since the news of the child separations, there had been outrage and despair in my community. But nowhere was it stronger than within LM—the online lawyer mothers group. The humanitarian crisis was unbearable. Like me, many of these women just felt they needed to do something. I reached out to the network and many stepped up, despite the uncertainty of a brand-new model. We had our first cohort of lawyer volunteers, and immigration lawyers who joined to advise them.
Edited excerpt from Legal Heroes in the Trump Era by Tahmina Watson (Watson Immigration Law, 2020) appears by permission of the author and publisher.