The email went out at lunchtime on Saturday from International Refugee Assistance Project telling lawyers to head to O’Hare Airport in Chicago immediately to help people detained by immigration officials. Fiona McEntee, who is originally from Knocklyon in Dublin, was one of the lawyers who received the email. Car-pooling was arranged to get as many to the airport as quickly as possible.
President Donald Trump’s executive order, signed at 4.42pm (9.42pm Irish time) on Friday, was being implemented. All refugees were being denied entry to the United States for 120 days. Syrian refugees were being barred indefinitely and citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – were being blocked from entering the country for 90 days.
After arriving at the airport, McEntee and her fellow lawyers set up a “legal triage clinic” to try to secure the names of the affected being held by the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), part of the Department of Homeland Security which is carrying out Trump’s order.
It was difficult – immigration officials would not release the names of the people they had detained after they had arrived on flights. The only names the lawyers received came from the family or friends of those detained.
“It was just a manic situation. It was really made so much worse that CBP were not communicating with us. They wouldn’t even talk,” said McEntee (35), who has been working as an immigration lawyer in her own practice in Chicago for a decade. Her brother Ray, who works with her, was at the airport, too.
One of her clients at O’Hare was an Iranian man who had a green card, making him a permanent legal resident in the US. He was preparing to apply for US citizenship. He was at the airport to pick up his Iranian wife, also a green card holder, and their US-born 18-month-old daughter, an American citizen, who were flying in on Saturday. They were held for seven hours.
For McEntee, a mother of a three-year-old and one-year-old, the stress became too much. “At one stage, I started bawling crying because I was so upset that there was an 18-month-old child being held,” she said. “I could feel myself in the position of that mother and I was overcome with emotion.”
While standing at the CBP office, two officers noticed her crying and started laughing and pointing at her. She complained to their watch commander who apologised. “It was just horrendous, the lack of compassion and the lack of communication,” she said. “It was just inhumane.”
Travellers at the airport, seeing the lawyers hard at work on phones and laptops, sent over boxes of pizzas, coffee and doughnuts and gift cards for fast food to keep them going. She was at the airport for 10 hours.
The 16 people, including three children and an 81-year-old woman in a wheelchair, whom the lawyers knew were being detained, were eventually released. The plight of refugees with no relatives in the US is not clear. “We don’t even know what is happening with them,” she said. “I am going to head to O’Hare again today because I just want to get an idea of what is going on.”