As soon as President Trump issued his controversial ban on refugees and citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries on Jan. 27, volunteer lawyers raced to airports around the country to offer free
legal services. The volunteers scrambled to protect the rights of travelers
impacted by the travel ban. Chaos ensued as the visa holders and even U.S.
lawful permanent residents landed at U.S. airports, only to be denied entry
and in some cases, sent back to their country of origin.
With no access to information about arriving travelers, lawyers had to
rely on the friends and families of those arriving to learn who needed help.
Hand-lettered posters in English, Arabic, and Farsi offering free legal help
sprung up at arrival desks and baggage claims, but this only assisted people already in the U.S. Translators, paralegals, and other support staff were
hard to come by, and volunteer lawyers were left scrambling as planeloads of
stranded foreigners arrived.
The ban caused upheaval at airports, with people desperately seeking information and help. Takao Yamada, a lawyer and founder of tech startup ReUp,
spent the weekend at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport coordinating volunteer lawyers with people arriving from dozens of different countries. After
watching many family members crying and pleading for assistance, he knew
there had to be a better way to get them the help they needed.
Airport Lawyer ( airportlawyer.org) is a new web app that is connecting refugees, immigrants, and other lawful travelers — including those from Iraq, Iran,
Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia — with free legal assistance. Using
the Airport Lawyer app, community members can securely share information
about individuals traveling into the U.S., including flight details, visa status,
and departure points. The information is saved in an encrypted database where
it can be accessed safely by local teams of volunteer lawyers, many of whom
have immigration law experience. The lawyers deploy to the airport to monitor
arrivals, provide on-site legal services, help ensure visa holders can enter the
U.S., and provide other support as needed.
The idea for Airport Lawyer came from
an emergency brainstorm between Greg
McLawsen, founder of Sound Immigration,
and Joshua Lenon, lawyer-in-residence at
Clio, a cloud-based law practice management
software. Clio had already begun donating
access to its legal software to volunteer lawyers responding to the travel ban crisis. On
Friday, Feb. 3, just days after the travel ban
was implemented, Lenon reached McLawsen
by Twitter with an open-ended offer – “how
can we help?” By the following Monday, Airport Lawyer was a reality.
Airport Lawyer’s rapid development was led
by a team of lawyers and tech entrepreneurs.
The app is fully tested and already live at nearly two dozen U.S. international airports, including Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International
Airport (ATL), Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI),
Denver International Airport (DIA), Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), and Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD). The
group behind the project plans to roll out coverage at all U.S. international airports.
The under-the-hood engine for Airport
Lawyer was developed by New York-based
company Neota Logic, a platform that makes
it possible to build powerful expert systems
and web-based applications very quickly.
PRO BONO LAWYERS
RACE TO THE AIRPORTS
by Takao Yamada
and Greg McLawsen
Using Innovative Legal Technology to Help
Connect Immigrants and Refugees to Free