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Meet The Lawyers Helping Refugees, Immigrants At O'Hare

By Kelly Bauer | February 2, 2017 6:23am
 Volunteers hold signs addressed to people flying in to O'Hare's international terminal. Attorneys and others have set up camp in the airport as they try to help immigrants and refugees.
Volunteers hold signs addressed to people flying in to O'Hare's international terminal. Attorneys and others have set up camp in the airport as they try to help immigrants and refugees.
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DNAinfo/Kelly Bauer

O'HARE — Hundreds of lawyers and volunteers have descended on O'Hare Airport, helping those affected by a travel ban targeting seven predominantly Muslim countries.

The volunteers started flooding O'Hare after President Donald Trump issued an executive order temporarily barring people from the countries from entering the United States. Protesters gathered at the airport — and others around the country — and lawyers showed up hoping they could help those being detained or deported.

The lawyers have banded together with help from other volunteers and worked with dozens of families so far.

The ban has led to Syrian refugees being turned away, including a family that was supposed to find a new home in Lincoln Square, and travelers being kept out. An Iranian-born artist who lives in Bridgeport has been stranded in Australia, away from her husband in Chicago.

 Hundreds of attorneys have set up shop in O'Hare's international terminal as they try to help immigrants and refugees.
Hundreds of attorneys have set up shop in O'Hare's international terminal as they try to help immigrants and refugees.
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DNAinfo/Kelly Bauer

"I strongly believe that this is a very un-American way to go about doing things," said Ginger Devaney, an immigration attorney who lives in Rogers Park and was working a shift with the group Wednesday. Patriotism was important to her family when she grew up in Georgia, she said. 

"As someone who isn't an immigrant, I have a duty to be here and protect the values of the country," said Devaney.

There have been so many volunteers at O'Hare — about 700 attorneys and interpreters — and so many food donations that organizers are encouraging people to devote their time or resources to other groups.

'I have a duty'

The attorneys put in six-hour shifts, keeping crews at O'Hare 6 a.m. to midnight. They're getting emails, calls and private messages on social media from people concerned someone they know will be or has been turned away or detained. They encourage people getting off flights to tell them if someone wasn't allowed on their plane.

Some of the attorneys have done political organizing before. Others are fresh out of law school. Some with careers are working pro bono and getting support from their firms or employers, while others are coming in on days off or sacrificing time with family to help.

"Sort of the reason I think many of us get in the profession is to help people in need and to protect people's rights," said Jamie Friedland, who's helping organize communications between the volunteers. His first shift was Sunday morning. "And this seemed like ... the quintessential time to do that."

Attorney Ellen Marks, who works Downtown, said the volunteers' work was "fundamental to what it means to be American" because they are protecting the rights of people coming to the United States.

"Lawyers get a bad reputation, but the lawyers who I know overwhelmingly are people who care about their country, their clients, the rule of law, civil rights and people who are in need of representation — overwhelmingly," Marks said. "I think you're going to see more lawyers who are putting on new hats and coming out to defend this country."

One volunteer, Mark Hilkert, graduated from law school and moved to Andersonville just a few months ago. He didn't focus on immigration law at school, but he stands in O'Hare's international terminal, holding signs with messages in a variety of languages and helping wherever he can.

Another attorney, who's coming in on her days off, has three grandparents who came to the United States as refugees fleeing Nazis. She showed up at O'Hare on Saturday, hoping to help. There were only a few lawyers and protesters when she started at 4 p.m., she said, but she stayed until 11 and watched the crowd of supporters swell.

"I feel like I have a duty to do what I can to help make sure that people are complying with the law and that we are the welcoming country I believe we should be to refugees and immigrants," she said while pulling a morning shift at the airport on Wednesday. "I think we made a difference on Saturday.

"It's heartening to see all the support and all the people that really are, I guess, believe in what I think is the right thing, as well. All of that support is, really, it's amazing."

She told her daughters about what she was doing to help immigrants and refugees. The girls know why she's coming to O'Hare, she said, and they understand.

'I wish I could do more'

The attorneys have set up shop in Terminal 5. They have a storage locker and several tables across from a McDonald's and near the the pickup area so families can get help if they have concerns about an international traveler who was supposed to arrive at O'Hare.

 Attorneys hold signs addressed to people flying in to O'Hare's international terminal. They have been volunteering to help immigrants and refugees.
Attorneys hold signs addressed to people flying in to O'Hare's international terminal. They have been volunteering to help immigrants and refugees.
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DNAinfo/Kelly Bauer

On Wednesday, people moving through the airport stopped by to thank the volunteers for their work and say they supported what they were doing.

"Thank you, guys!" one man said, giving the group a thumbs-up, as he went up an escalator and out of sight.

The work the group is doing is "on the fly," Friedland said. There are immigration lawyers who can talk to people about what rights they have. The volunteers manage phones, getting information from callers and sharing it with the immigration experts, while others post updates on the group's Twitter or Facebook page or hold signs near the arrival gates.

The volunteers don't know how long they'll be there. Their shifts are covered this week (those who wish to participate can sign up online), and Friedland said long-term work could depend on what Trump's administration does. There are discussions about how the group can continue, if it does.

And the shifts have been quieter since the weekend, they said. They're worried it's because people are being turned away before they can even board a plane to O'Hare.

On Wednesday, they took calls from relatives concerned a loved one wouldn't be allowed entry to the United States.

Devaney, the attorney from Rogers Park, said she'd had to advise her clients with visas not to leave the United States — she's concerned another country could get added to the banned list without warning. Other attorneys said they're worried for the future of Latino immigrants, whom Trump derided as "rapists" and "criminals" during the campaign, and permanent residents.

For now, Trump's immigration orders are facing legal challenges, but they stand.

"Thank you. I wish I could do more," one of the lawyers, speaking on the phone, said to a woman concerned her daughter-in-law is being detained. The phone conversation ended, and the attorney sat down and rested her forehead in her hand.

"That's the hardest part of my job," she said to the table of lawyers. "Sometimes there's nothing to be done. And that sucks."