In an average week, Sufyan Sohel receives five phone calls from international travelers and their families facing obstacles entering the U.S. While these travelers usually carry valid visas, they find themselves held up at customs and seek out Sohel for help.
This is not Sohel’s full-time job. Sohel is the Deputy Director and counsel for CAIR-Chicago. However, Sohel also leads group of volunteer lawyers stemming from the early days of the Trump Administration’s January 2017 travel ban, which limited travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. A rush of lawyers inundated O’Hare International Airport upon the ban’s announcement, offering legal assistance to those detained at the airport and their families.
Lawyers created a makeshift headquarters at O’Hare, manning an around-the-clock legal aide station. Images of the lawyers circulated social media, as well as those of the free meals provided by airport restaurants and donations of homemade cookies from supportive Chicago residents. The lawyers received significant media attention, and Chicago Magazine named the lawyers Chicagoans of the Year in 2017. While the media attention has diminished, the work of the volunteer lawyers has quietly continued.
What started as a 24/7, on-the-ground operation at O’Hare has transformed into a network of lawyers—many practicing outside of immigration law—held together by their desire to confront the legality of what they consider ongoing immigration injustices.
Matthew Pryor, counsel for Cook County’s Shakman Compliance Administrator’s Office, was one of the first lawyers on the scene that January 2017 day. He became a leader of the O’Hare lawyers’ movement alongside Sohel, Iman Boundaoui and Jamie Friedland. Within days, the group corralled 300 lawyers, formed a partnership with CAIR-Chicago and established the Travelers’ Assistance Project. “We got through that first stay, and we started talking over the coming weeks about how do we create a formal structure?” Pryor said. “We’ve got a bunch of attorneys, law students, and interpreters who want to help out.”
Through the Travelers Assistance Project, the lawyers have continued a hotline and online travel registration system for those worried about their travel status. With the registration system, lawyers know when people are traveling and contact them upon arrival. Sohel estimates the group gets about 10 travel registrations each week. While these travelers arrive with their hard-fought visas in hand, issues can still arise with Customs and Border Patrol. Sohel said a quarter of those who reach out may have falsified information on a visa, “[But] a lot of the time it’s straight up prejudice.”
Sohel said about 60 percent of those who contact the project come from Muslim-majority countries, although there’s been an uptick in Mexican travelers in the past year with rising tensions along the U.S.-Mexico border.
While just a few lawyers work on the Travelers Assistance Project, many of the other original volunteers keep in touch through the Chicago Legal Responders Network. That Google Group—moderated by Pryor, Boundaoui and Friedland—has grown to 2,500 lawyers and law students who respond to requests for legal help from local human rights organizations and share resources on immigration law.
For Pryor, his heavy involvement in the Travelers Assistance Project and the Chicago Legal Responders Network is not something he expected, but something he’s glad to be a part of. Looking back, he said, “I had no idea what I was getting into when I showed up that day.”
Other stories by Miriam Finder Annenberg