After U.S. President Donald Trump implemented a travel ban that caught people off guard earlier this year, Canadian lawyers quickly built a network to help out those affected.
The Canadian Cross-Border Legal Coalition was established earlier this year after Trump suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, stopping nationals from Yemen, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Iran and Iraq from going into the U.S. for 90 days.
The ban meant massive legal wrangling south of the border, which is still ongoing.
It also led to protests across North America and confusion for travellers impacted by the ban, including some who weren’t able to return to the United States.
Meanwhile, Canadian lawyers jumped into action to help — including volunteering at the airport to speak with people disturbed by the ban.
Corey Shefman, an associate at Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP and Toronto co-ordinator for the Canadian Cross-Border Legal Coalition, says a wide variety of lawyers volunteered in response to the ban.
“The people who came out to Pearson [International Airport] were all just run-of-the-mill lawyers; volunteers from every corner of the legal community,” says Shefman.
More than 300 lawyers from Toronto were involved, he says, both at the airport and offsite.
“For about two-and-a-half weeks, we had lawyers at the airport from 4 a.m. until about 10 p.m., which is the entire time that U.S. pre-clearance was open, lawyers at both terminals, anywhere from two to six at a time,” he says.
Other lawyers helped with research and informationgathering or produced assistance documents that were provided to travellers, he says.
The coalition is made up of partners including the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, the Refugee Hub, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, as well as lawyers and law students.
In January and February, volunteers went to airports in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax to help, as well as to the land border in Windsor.
“[I] think it’s because we saw what was happening and we saw how people were being treated, and it was simply not in keeping with very basic, fundamental Canadian values that we can all agree on,” he adds. “We may differ in our politics, but I think most Canadians, and certainly most Canadian lawyers, can agree on the fundamental principles of equality.”
Volunteer efforts included the work by lawyers at airports and, after the emergency nature of the ban subsided, it continued with evidence-gathering and active outreach to figure out who was affected by the ban.
“We still think it’s really important to make sure that people . . . who have been affected get the redress they need, and that they also get connected into broader policy advocacy on this important issue,” says Erin Simpson, a Toronto immigration and refugee lawyer. Simpson has been retained on behalf of the coalition to gather information to support U.S. litigation fighting the executive orders and look at the links between the executive orders and existing Canadian law.
“We’re also trying to look at [if] there is any implication for Canadian law from these executive orders, given how intertwined our refugee determination systems end up being at the border,” she says. She’s also working to connect people hurt by the ban with legal help in the United States, as the second phase of the coalition’s work gears up.
“Phase one was this response at the airports, and phase two is about making sure that people [who] were affected or may still be affected are getting access to legal advice so we can connect people, in many cases, with free legal assistance in the United States,” says Simpson.
“[W]e’re making sure that their stories are getting out there and that we’re transferring those to organizations monitoring the situation, so [we can discover] if there’s any trend to be discerned from what’s been happening to people.”
The hope is that lawyers who were involved in phase one will be mobilized to reach out to people in their communities impacted by the ban, says Simpson. Shefman says the volunteer effort by lawyers shows how members of the profession are motivated to achieve justice.
“We were happy to be able to help a number of people who we encountered at the airport who were stranded because of Trump’s travel ban, and our presence there had a very real impact on their lives and on their comfort,” he says.
“Going forward I think this experience has shown that the legal community can mobilize if the situation arises, if the need arises. I think it shows that we can work outside the traditional power structures and outside of the traditional infrastructure.”