Around 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, more than a dozen lawyers, translators and other volunteers—tech specialists, a communications team—milled around behind a cubicle partition wall in John F. Kennedy Airport's Terminal 4, packing up what had become, over the last seven days, their central command station.
"Tomorrow I go back to Staten Island," said Daniela Crespo, a Legal Aid staff attorney who represents tenants in that borough. Last week, Crespo took three vacation days to volunteer at JFK, helping out with communications. "I've been spending a lot of hours here and then I have insomnia," she said, smiling tiredly.
Lawyers who rushed to JFK a week ago Saturday, the first morning of President Donald Trump's travel ban, transitioned from hunching on the terminal floor on their laptops to working out of a makeshift office, complete with multi-language signage and a check-in booth. Chairs and tables were supplied by the terminal (an agreement reached after a temporary lawyer encampment at Terminal 4's Central Diner started cutting into the restaurant's business). The majority pro-bono group also adopted a name—NoBanJFK—a Twitter handle, and a 24-hour shift schedule.
According to organizers, the group has assisted over 130 families whose loved ones were held for lengthy questioning as a result of the ban, which bars all refugees for 120 days and travelers from seven predominantly-Muslim countries for 90 days. After a federal judge in Seattle issued a restraining order on Friday blocking the ban—the Justice Department's appeal was rejected on Sunday—travelers from impacted countries have been able to pass through customs without incident.
"We're tracking, but everyone seems to be making it in without a problem," said Camille Mackler, Director of Legal Initiatives at the New York Immigration Coalition.
Now, Mackler added, "We're transitioning to the next phase."
— NoBanJFK (@nobanjfk) February 6, 2017
Moving forward, the round-the-clock NoBanJFK crew, comprised of dozens of people per shift (hundreds, all-told), will shrink to a 24-hour rotation of eight-to-ten lawyers and four translators, stationed in terminal arrival halls to greet international flights. Immigration lawyers working remotely will also continue to monitor the NoBanJFK hotline, which they launched this week to field tips from travelers.
The Seattle judge's ruling is temporary, and while refugee resettlement organizations are now reportedly working on overdrive to take advantage of this window, some travelers impacted by the ban don't have the means to immediately rebook travel to America.
Shavonne, a 35-year-old mother of two, stood under the arrivals board in Terminal 4 on Sunday, scanning for her husband's flight from Cairo. A green card holder, he'd been in Yemen for the past four months visiting relatives, and had been actively searching for a flight home since December. He managed to find a flight to New York last week, first taking a bus to Jordan and then flying from Jordan to Egypt.
"There's a war over there, so it's kind of hard to get flights in and out," Shavonne said (she asked that her last name be withheld to protect her family's privacy). "They can't just go and say, 'I'm going to get a flight today.'"
"If we're getting no calls, we'll just pack it up," Mackler said, of the lawyer skeleton crew. "If we're getting more calls, we'll think about coming back."
Meanwhile, NoBanJFK has created a system this past week the group believes will help them combat President Trump's immigration policies in the weeks and months to come. In addition to the travel ban, Trump has signed executive orders that could empower Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport a much wider swath of non-citizens than previous administrations. One recent analysis, from the Los Angeles Times, estimates that as many as 8 million people could be considered a deportation priority under Trump.
"We were saying this setup is going to be replicable, and that's what we meant," Mackler said. "We didn't mean for another airport effort. We meant when they [ICE teams] go to a dairy farm in Upstate New York and we need to all pile out there. Or on Long Island. So, that's what I have in mind."