Airport Advocacy | A Friendly Face for International Students

The January travel ban officially targeted refugees, green card holders, and visitors from 7 Muslim-majority countries. It’s informal effect, however, was to increase the hurdles faced by all refugees, immigrants, and visitors trying to enter the United States. If you want to help America show a more welcoming face to the world , guest writer Sarojini proposes a simple and sensible way to get involved. 


Although the “Muslim ban” has temporarily been halted by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Trump’s administration is already fighting hard to prevail over the judiciary. So there’s a good chance that this is a very temporary respite from the disruption wrought by this deeply Islamophobic policy. Trump’s executive order has also placed tremendous discretionary power in the hands of Customs and Border Protection (CPB) officials.

I’m sure some fraction of CBP officials have always been racist and/or Islamophobic, and have looked for reasons to needlessly detain and hassle travelers with Muslim names, or those traveling from Muslim-majority, even before Trump.

However, based on my friends’ personal experiences (and other experiences shared on social media), CBP officials in the Trump era seem far more eager and willing to detain Muslim travelers illegally, coerce them into showing their social media activity (including, in one case, demanding access to a NASA-issued cell phone containing classified information) and hold them for long periods of time, without explanation, before letting them go. Even US citizens who have traveled to a Muslim-majority country in the past have been detained or given a hard time upon their return. The data also shows that the number of Muslims entering the country dropped steeply during the brief period when the ban was in effect.

The anxiety around “flying while brown” is especially daunting for international students and temporary workers who do not have any family members or friends in the US, or at least in the city where they are landing. Many colleges, universities, and workplaces have advised their international students and workers to avoid traveling, but some people may still have to travel.

The Idea

If you live near a major international airport, or within driving distance of one, you could volunteer to be a “friend” or “family member” or “host family” for someone flying into the country who does not have anyone to pick them up at the airport, is nervous about being detained, and/or may need legal assistance. It will probably eat a few hours out of your day, but even helping out one person would be really useful.

I haven’t yet done an airport run of this sort, but I have advertised my availability to provide this type of support on Facebook groups for alumni of my high school and college who are flying into O’Hare. I’m open to more suggestions for getting this information out there.

THE Deep Dive

If someone is flying into my nearby airports (O’Hare or Midway) on an international flight, I exchange numbers with the traveler and make sure I have their flight details like the booking code, flight numbers, layovers, etc. before they travel. I look them up on Facebook or use Whatsapp to make sure I can recognize them at the airport. I also make sure I have a number/email for a family member who is elsewhere in the US, or in the person’s home country; and that they have my number as well. This may seem like a lot of coordinating, but this student’s family in Indonesia or South Africa or London is going to be a little less anxious knowing that there’s someone they can call if they don’t get the “landed safe” message from their kid.

On the day of their travel, I will look up the flight to make sure it’s on time, keep track of any delays, and unless I have information suggesting they were not even allowed to board the US-bound leg of their flight, I will go to the airport and wait for them in the international arrivals area. If more than an hour passes after their flight landing and I haven’t heard from them, I intend to start ask if I can talk to either a CBP official or someone from the airline, and very politely explain that I’m waiting for my friend and getting worried. This will make sure they have registered my presence.

If the traveler has made it to US soil, then the goal is to make sure they – the airport security personnel, customs officials, whoever—know that the traveler is not alone, that they have someone on the outside with a smartphone who speaks English and is confident and capable of calling a lawyer, speaking with the media, posting a blow-by-blow on social media. (Make sure your phone is charged!)

(It is possible that the CPB staff check and tell me that the traveler is not at the airport, and was not on the plane or was prevented from boarding the plane at the layover airport. I honestly don’t know what to do in this case. If you have Skype credit or Whatsapp, you could try calling them, but they may not have internet connectivity. Hopefully they will have found a way to let their family know, and may even be on their way back home. This is one good reason to be able to reach their family and check if they’ve heard from the traveler.)

What happens if they still aren’t released? I really don’t know, but here are some things I would check:

  1. If they are a student or temporary worker, is the school/college/employer aware? These institutions can be powerful advocates.
  2. Are there any lawyers in the vicinity who can help? I know there were lawyers camped out at JFK and other major airports that first weekend after the executive order went into effect, but that may not be the case anymore.
  3. Look up the local chapter of the Council of American Islamic Relations (or a related organization depending on the person). Explain the situation and ask if they provide legal help or can point you towards resources.
  4. Look up the local office of the National Lawyers Guild and call them. They’re the people you’re supposed to call if you’re arrested while protesting. I have no idea if they can also help get your friend out of the airport and into the country.
  5. Also inform the ACLU of your state – they don’t provide legal services, only litigate, but they may point you to local resources.
  6. There may be other sources of local legal services – for myself, I’m thinking of the Circuit Court of Cook County; maybe you can find a local analogue.

Of course, it may be helpful to look up all this stuff from the comfort of your house ahead of time! You could show up to the airport armed with a list of numbers you can call to get quick legal representation if needed. You could also contact CAIR beforehand and organize a “know your rights” workshop for your school/college/community and ask them what actions they would suggest in an airport detention situation.

If the person in the airport has to pay for legal assistance, know that you can crowd-fund the amount. Neither you nor the traveler should have to foot the entire bill. You really shouldn’t have to pay for anything more than airport parking (if you don’t take public transit) if you end up doing this.

Finally, and this is key: document the experience. Social media is a legitimate way to informally document your and/or the traveler’s experience. If it turns out to be particularly harrowing and requires hours of legal intervention, consider contacting the local press/media and inform them of what is going on – you can call, email, or reach out on Twitter.


Guest writer
Sarojini is a trained mediator and negotiator, a big believer in people-to-people diplomacy, a data and policy nerd, and perpetual student.  She is not a lawyer, just someone who has entered and exited the country a number of times, had to clear customs and immigration as a non-citizen about a dozen times, and has often gone to receive friends and family at the airport.

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