Ubiñas: Trump's travel ban has local immigration lawyers on high alert

Ayodele Gansallo is one of the immigration lawyers who rushed to Philadelphia International Airport when President Trump's ban took effect.

Sometime this week, President Trump will announce his travel ban do-over.

Whether his second attempt at banning Muslims from the United States will spark the same nationwide chaos as his first is anyone’s guess. But this time, immigration lawyers are ready, or as ready as anyone can be during this "unprecedented presidency." 

 “There’s not much we can do until we see the text of the next executive order,” said Ayodele Gansallo, a senior staff attorney at HIAS Pennsylvania, which provides services to low-income immigrants. “But we will be ready to challenge it if it fails to observe the protections guaranteed by the Constitution. It will be interesting to see if this administration has learned anything from the previous debacle, especially that the president’s powers are not limitless.”

About that debacle. . . .  

I recently sat with Gansallo in a windowless office on Arch Street that she shares with some fish she pragmatically calls Fish. She got her aquatic office mates after she heard they might help decrease stress. But these days, finding Nemo would be easier than finding peace of mind.

On the day last month that Trump’s ban restricted travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries and temporarily halted a refugee program for Syrian immigrants, Gansallo was at the auto shop waiting for an oil change. She planned a trip to the gym, followed by a bunch of Saturday chores and then her son’s choir concert that night.

And then her phone went off.

It was a friend, another lawyer who had just gotten a call from a Syrian family whose relatives had arrived at the Philadelphia airport, only to be detained and sent back.

As they strategized, more calls came in, and then more emails from lawyers working together to try to help the detainees. Gansallo tried to go on with her day, but during a pit stop at Marshalls, the contrast of her two worlds seemed more striking than ever.

“I'm thinking about the conflict in Syria, [about this family] and thinking, ‘I hope they're OK,’  and I see women's swimsuits hanging up … and I don’t know, something felt wrong about that.... It just felt as if I was in the wrong place.” 

A few hours later, Gansallo joined other lawyers and public officials at the Philadelphia airport.

In more than two decades as an immigration attorney here and in the United Kingdom, Gansallo had never seen anything like it: Immigration officials refusing to give information to public officials, airline employees who clearly felt uncomfortable following new orders.

But she also had never encountered the dramatic display of support that was unfolding outside the room they were in, either.

In the international arrivals hall, where  the Declaration of Independence is inscribed on the walls, a growing crowd of protesters rallied against Trump’s order. They held signs supporting the refugees and chanted, “Ban the wall!” and  “Philly is your home!”

 “We, in the immigration community, have not seen [an expression like that] for a very long time,” she said.

Back home that night, Gansallo tried to process the day. Her head was throbbing, but protesters' overwhelming defense for immigrants at airports across the country bolstered her for the prolonged fight ahead.  

“I definitely respect the office of the presidency,” Gansallo said.  “But I see the effects of  a policy like this. I see what happens to families who get separated. I see the results of demonizing refugees, and it seems to me that people forget the history from whence we came. There's been a history of welcoming the stranger, giving refuge to those who needed it. When America got that wrong, it got it wrong in a very serious way.”

If nothing else, reflect on those words,  spoken by a Nigerian immigrant turned U.S. citizen who now fights for others who are nervously racing against time to beat Trump's next ban: "When America got that wrong, it got it wrong in a very serious way."

Last week, an Iranian mother who was detained and sent back returned to Philadelphia.

Again, Gansallo was there. This time to witness the tears of joy from a mother who just last month had sobbed inconsolably when stopped just feet from reuniting with daughters she hadn’t seen in years.

“The successes sustain me,” Gansallo said.

On the eve of another ban, she vows to hold on to that feeling as long as she can.

And then, she vows to fight.