Shortly after lunch Saturday, attorney Julia Schlozman received an email calling for lawyers to help people being held at O’Hare International Airport in the wake of President Donald Trump‘s immigration order.
Schlozman, who had only signed up to volunteer with the International Refugee Assistance Project a few hours earlier, quickly read the message and walked out the door. She hopped on a CTA bus, then transferred to the Blue Line to take her to the airport.
An attorney who specializes in criminal justice reform, Schlozman has never practiced immigration law. But she went anyway, believing her research skills, brainstorming ability and enthusiasm could somehow help.
“I wanted to contribute in any way I could,” she said. “I just felt like I had to do something.”
She wasn’t the only Chicago-area lawyer with that feeling.
About 150 attorneys rushed to O’Hare Saturday to help secure the release of more than a dozen travelers held as part of Trump’s crackdown on immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. They threw their weekend plans away, postponing family outings, ignoring household chores and canceling restaurant reservations to assist clients they had never met nor would ever bill.
Immigration attorney Maria Baldini-Potermin was catching up on work at her office when she received the email. Wearing yoga pants and a Girl Scouts T-shirt, she headed straight to the airport.
“The Chicago Bar is responding to the challenge,” she said. “It’s inspiring to see.”
Armed with laptops and iPads, the attorneys looked like “The Paper Chase” cavalry as they commandeered the dining area directly across from the McDonald’s kiosk in the international terminal. The initial call-to-action email quickly made its way to social media, leading to an overflow legal crowd in the O’Hare food court by 6 p.m.
Nearly all had come expecting to assist refugees enter the country. They were stunned to discover that every traveler held at O’Hare on Saturday already had some kind of legal status in the United States.
The travelers were not formally detained, which prevented the attorneys from speaking with them. Instead, the lawyers gleaned as much information as they could from the travelers’ family members who were waiting anxiously at O’Hare. They shared that information with local congressional offices in the hopes that the elected officials could persuade the Department of Homeland Security to release them.
While some attorneys lobbied Congress, others teamed up to work on legal briefs, do research or walk through the terminal with signs offering legal assistance.
“We had to be creative to make it known that we are here, and we can help,” Chicago immigration attorney Gretchen Ekerdt said. “I think it made a difference.”
All the held travelers were released by 10 p.m. Saturday, following a ruling from a federal judge in New York that blocked the U.S. from sending people out of the country under Trump’s order.
Before leaving the airport, most travelers and their families stopped to thank the attorneys. Because they were not allowed to use cellphones while being held, the travelers had no idea there were dozens of lawyers fighting on their behalf.
“This is the America I know,” said 67-year-old Abdulsalam Mused, a legal U.S. resident who was held for six hours because he was born in Yemen.
A photo of the attorneys’ makeshift law office went viral on social media, prompting supporters to show their appreciation by having pizzas, doughnuts and water delivered to the terminal. Several passers-by stopped to buy coffee for those working at the cramped tables, while one person made a care package of Visine and cough drops.
U.S. Reps. Brad Schneider and Raja Krishnamoorthi, both suburban Democrats, also came to thank them for their efforts.
“It feels like I’m in law school again, with the late-night hours and all the caffeine,” said Fiona McEntee, an immigration attorney who helped organize the effort. “Everyone has so much passion, it’s energizing. Everyone here feels like they had a duty to speak out for the most vulnerable in our society.”
The duty, it seemed, fell regardless of legal specialty. While most of Saturday’s volunteers were immigration attorneys, the ranks included criminal defense lawyers, corporate litigators and law school professors.
Emily Benfer, a law professor and director of the Health Justice Project at Loyola University, worked on her first-ever habeas corpus brief —– a legal document demanding a person be brought before a judge — at the airport.
“It’s incredibly inspiring,” she said of the lawyers gathered. “It shows that when we stand up together — instead of tearing each other apart — positive things can happen.”