Sunday was a day of strength for the Trump administration at Washington Dulles International Airport. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—the federal agency tasked with keeping people from entering the U.S. illegally—successfully deflected a federal judge’s court order and stonewalled three members of congress, in a display of executive branch muscle.
The night before, Judge Leonie Brinkema ordered CBP officials at the airport to let lawyers have access to legal permanent residents of the U.S. who were detained because of Trump’s travel ban.
It was a court order from a federal judge, which meant it was enforceable by federal law enforcement. But immigration lawyers at Dulles said it didn’t get adequately enforced. Instead, CBP kept the Dulles detainees—and it still isn’t public how many lawful American residents were held there, and for how long—from having face-to-face conversations with attorneys.
Instead, probably as a gesture toward compliance, immigration attorneys told The Daily Beast that they had learned detainees were provided with a copy of Judge Brinkema’s order and a paper listing contact information for pro bono immigration attorneys based in Northern Virginia.
It isn’t clear if those attorneys were on call on Sunday. It isn’t clear if all the detainees had access to phones while they were being held. And it isn’t clear why CBP barred the numerous volunteer immigration attorneys at hand on the airport from talking in person with people being held.
And their need for attorneys was urgent. Slate reported that at least two detainees—a 19-year-old and a 21-year-old, both citizens of Yemen—signed away their green cards while they were in detention without access to lawyers.
It was the worst nightmare for the volunteer lawyers at Dulles: that CBP would be able to nab a public relations win by releasing detainees—but without the public realizing that the agency may have bullied some of those detainees into ceding their rights to live in the United States.
Brinkema’s order, which was just a few lines long, directed CBP to “permit lawyers access to all legal permanent residents being detained at Dulles International Airport.”
Lawyers at the airport, who spent hours waiting and hoping to be able to meet with travelers who were held by CBP, said they were deeply distressed that no one forced the agency to comply more fully with Brinkema’s order.
On Sunday morning, the Legal Aid Justice Center and Mayer Brown law firm—who filed the suit—released statement saying they would monitor CBP to be sure it did as Brinkema ordered.
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has recently confirmed that it has modified its practices with respect to LPR persons in response to the federal court’s temporary restraining order,” the statement said. “We are monitoring CBP’s new practices to ensure rigid adherence and to determine if they comply with the judicial directive.”
Some immigration attorneys at Dulles want CBP held in contempt of court.
Hassan Ahmad—an immigration attorney who carried a sign that said “See something? Say something! (To me; I’m a lawyer)”—told The Daily Beast he was frustrated that 24 hours after Brinkema released her order, CBP seemed to be defying it.
“We still haven’t talked to a client,” said Ahmad, who is with the HMA Law Firm in McLean, Va. “And that is proving serious Constitutional problems for access to counsel. Rights are being violated.”
He wasn’t satisfied with the phone numbers that CBP gave detainees.
“I think that’s gamesmanship,” he said. “I think that’s semantic play. If that’s their attempt at doing it, I think they would have a lot of explaining to do. I don’t think that’s going to sit well with Judge Brinkema.”
Officials with the agency were quarantined away from the public the entire time I was at Dulles (from about 8 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. on Saturday and then 3:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Sunday). Lawyers and police officers said the CBP officials were squirreled away in a room down a hall blocked off by police. When Sen. Cory Booker visited Dulles on Saturday night, he got past the police and down the hall. But a well-placed source told The Daily Beast that CBP officials refused to see him, instead passing notes back and forth about their understanding of Brinkema’s order.
Three Democratic members of Congress—Gerry Connolly and Don Beyer of Virginia and Jamie Raskin of Maryland—all tried to get police officers to let them go back and talk to the CBP officials (an interchange the Huffington Post caught on video).
“Are people being detained?” Connolly asked.
“Sir, I don’t know that,” the officer replied. “I’m part of the police department.”
Connolly asked the officer why he wouldn’t let the congressmen talk to CBP officials.
“This is a secure area,” the officer replied. “I’m trying to get them to give you authority to come back, permission to come back.”
His efforts failed. The members didn’t talk to anyone from the agency at Dulles, and the lawyers didn’t talk to anyone being detained.
“They have successfully managed to black out legal representation enough with regard to information so that it’s made it very difficult for us to know with certainty whether they are complying,” said Brian Murray, an immigration attorney based in Fairfax, Va. “We can suppose they are not––we don’t know for sure.”
The agency had gone to extraordinary lengths to stiff-arm attorneys, he said. Murray added that attorneys looking to get CBP held in contempt could have trouble making the case in court if the agency blocks them from learning the names of the people being detained—and, thus, being denied their rights to an attorney.
“It’s so fucked up,” he said.
So Sunday was a win for for the agency, he said, and a loss for travelers trying to access attorneys.
“Round one goes to CBP,” Murray said. “We’re still fighting.”