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NHI’s Michelle Saenz-Rodriguez Helps Free DFW Travel Ban Detainees

Posted: January 31, 2017 at 11:26 pm   /   by   /   comments (2)

This past Saturday morning, Michelle Saenz-Rodriguez — the Dallas-based immigration lawyer who chairs the National Hispanic Institute’s board of directors — was on a weekend trip with her mom in Oklahoma when a colleague called her to ask about a rumor of detained international travelers at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

The detainees were, of course, some of the first travelers affected by President Trump’s executive order restricting people from seven majority-Muslim nations from entering the United States. The order was signed while two Dallas-bound flights, from Dubai and Qatar, were in the air. Passengers had to clear immigration screenings before boarding, but between the time they took off and landed, the rules had changed in a move that will undoubtedly be part of the Trump Administration’s legacy.

Saenz-Rodriguez arrived at the airport at 4:30 pm, and stayed until 2 am that morning, working to free the detainees with two other lawyers, being met by NHI alumni who showed up to support her and became part of a diverse group of protestors staying at the airport for hours, becoming part of NPR affiliate KERA’s coverage of the detainment, and consulting with the families of detainees who found themselves in an odd legal limbo.

“Initially, there were 12 people detained, and then they released two U.S. legal residents [colloquially known as “green card holders”] and a U.S. citizen,” Saenz-Rodriguez said. “That made us wonder if this was applying to people with dual passports, to legal residents, and indeed it was.” She also reports that they learned those being held were given two difficult choices: Either voluntarily request to leave the country and withdraw the visas they were granted, or they’d be issued a removal that would keep them from entering the United States for five years.

Though the detainees were being held by Customs and Border Protection officials in rooms inside the airport, U.S. immigration law holds that until people are granted entry into the country, they are not legally in the United States even if they are physically inside an American airport, and therefore are not entitled to counsel. Saenz-Rodriguez communicated with family members of the detainees, encouraging them to tell the detainees not to sign their visa rights away if they were able to contact them.

Saenz-Rodriguez noted that injunction against the executive order, which was issued in New York about 8:30 pm CT, was supposed to apply nationwide — not just for the JFK detainees for whom the injunction was specifically issued. But by then, CPB officials had sequestered the detainees in a room with cots to allow them to sleep. Saenz-Rodriguez and a small group of protesters were led to their location by someone who knew where they were being held, and they were able to see the detainees through the room’s windows, and let them know they weren’t forgotten, before DHS workers blocked the windows with screens.

When Saenz-Rodriguez arrived the next morning, she was one of about 50 lawyers who have converged on the airport, working to release the detainees before they were sent out of the country — they were, in fact, on a airline’s passenger list to head back to the Middle East at 11 am that morning. A growing number of protesters and civic officials were arriving at DFW to secure their release; when it was finally granted, CPB officials were so concerned with the crowds that the detainees were driven off-site to reunite with their families, after Saenz-Rodriguez and the other two immigration lawyers who originally showed up at DFW on Saturday were dispatched to let the family members know where to meet them.

Saenz-Rodriguez found the entire experience to be extraordinary. “I couldn’t believe this was happening,” she said. “This went back to days of Japanese internment camps, when people were deemed dangerous just based on where they came from him. There was also this distinction made based on people feeling fear, this idea that if it was happening to them, it was also happening to other people.”

But she was also heartened by the support of the community, who came to the airport to, as she put it, stand up for what’s right.

“It was important for people to get out there and say that we won’t stand for this happening in our community,” she said. “The families we helped told us that although it was an awful experience, it was also a great experience, in that they didn’t expect a lawyer to come out of nowhere, who didn’t know them, to help them.”

(Photo courtesy of Linah Mohammad, @mohammadlinah)

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