Donors Give ACLU $35 Million To Fight Immigration Orders

January 31, 2017       Andy Segedin      

The weekend started for leaders at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) with an executive order by President Donald J. Trump banning those from seven predominantly Muslim countries from coming to the United States. It ended with the obtaining of a stay against the order from federal judge Ann M. Donnelly, a large influx of grassroots support and $35 million in donations from Friday through Monday.

Historically, leaders at ACLU have seen the organization as predominantly focused with work in the courtroom and high-level advocacy, according to Mark Wier, chief development officer. That was, again, where efforts were first directed when news of the executive order circulated late Friday afternoon. Leaders were prepared and were able to move quickly on getting a stay.

The advocacy and grassroots organizing aspect was a little more foreign, an area in which ACLU leaders have endeavored to become more involved, but had not yet succeeded to the level seen over the weekend.

Supporters were engaged on social media after news of the order went out, but Wier said that the response felt very organic and supporter-driven. “People are hungry to take action. We all need just a time and place to show up,” he said. “This was one of the moments people identified with…This moment, for us, was the first time that we’ve been successful in a large scale in getting the word out to millions of people.”

Aiding that advocacy has been the organization’s longer reach. Since the November election, ACLU has doubled in membership to 1 million, increased Facebook support by 150 percent to 1.87 million likes and increased its reach by 200 percent on Twitter to 920,000 followers.

The influx of $35 million felt similarly organic, Wier said. As always, ACLU leaders used tools such as Facebook Ads and Google Adwords, but Wier credited momentum on social media, with self-initiated matching gifts by celebrities and everyday people alike, as reason for the large sum. “It came out of people seeing concrete action,” Wier said, referencing the legal victory as the first tangible piece of pushback since Trump came into office. “Talking about it and doing are two different things, it struck a nerve.”

Moving forward, ACLU has a host of litigation strategies in the works and staff is doing plenty of research. Given the ideological connection between the administrative and Congress, Wier said that the majority of ACLU’s work will likely be done on the defensive, with a few proactive measures mixed in. “Even if our work is mostly about slowing things down, gummying up the works…we feel like that’s an important role to play, as well,” said Wier.

The National Immigration Law Center (NILC), too, was active in the hours and days following the seven-nation executive order. By 11:30 p.m. Friday, Marielena Hincapié, executive director, had a call out to United States Border Control. Managers were still trying to figureout their responsibilities under the order. By 5:30 a.m. (PT) NILC filed the lawsuit along with the ACLU and Yale Law School clinic. The nationwide stay came down later that day.

Hincapié called the federal judicial order “extremely critical,” representing an early win for the immigrant and refugee communities. NILC has been preparing for a Trump presidency since before the election, with litigation and coordinated work with advocates and representatives serving as primary tools.

NILC has enjoyed multi-tiered support in its efforts. Once a hearing was secured on Saturday, for instance, Make the Road New York and New York Immigration Coalition mobilized airport protestors toward the courthouse. Thousands of lawyers and law students have lent their support for everything from legal expertise to circulating petitions. Lawyers for Good Government and American Immigration Lawyers Association have helped coordinate resources and efforts.

Work is still left to be done, Hincapié said. Individuals continue to be detained and NILC has yet to receive a requested list of those detained and deported. The organization is working with Washington state on a lawsuit against the executive order and city mayors are also exploring how best to proceed. “We use an integrated approach – state and federal – communication, litigation and advocacy,” Hincapié said “It’s been a very broad range of tactics and strategies.”

The weekend was spent in “crisis mode,” according to Bill Swersey, senior director of communications and digital media at HIAS – formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. HIAS works with the U.S. Department of State on handling resettlement cases from inception until arrival in the U.S., at which point one of its 20 affiliates assist with on-the-ground work. The executive order didn’t come in until late Friday afternoon and precise language wasn’t available until a few hours later.

The first concern, according to Swersey, was how HIAS clients in transit were being impacted. Leaders were made aware that a Syrian family traveling from Amman, Jordan to Kiev, Ukraine to New York to meet their father in Connecticut were not permitted to make the second flight and sent back to Jordan. At least two other clients were among the detainees at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Without families or friends awaiting them, some refugees have no one aside from HIAS looking out for them, Swersey said.

“We are anxious because, what we heard throughout the weekend, was that there was incredible confusion because of the way [the executive order] came down,” he said. “We don’t want somebody who is legally allowed under the temporary waiver to get stopped, detained or hassled. It’s as scary as hell for these people.”

In the short term, HIAS is still focused on refugees scheduled to arrive in the coming days. Advocacy efforts have also pumped up with supporters mobilized at airport protests and marches. A letter signed by 1,900 rabbis in support of HIAS’ work has been sent to Congress. Though declining to get into specifics, Swersey added that the weekend also proved to HIAS’ largest three-day influx of donations during a period in which active fundraising was not taking place.

The American Immigration Council (AIC) has also been busy at work — preparing to litigate against some of the Trump administration’s policies. The challenge, according to communications director Wendy Feliz, is that some of Trump’s policies, unlike the seven-nation ban, are not specific enough to litigate against as of yet. Building a wall along the southern border, for instance, first needs to be practicable before it can be litigated against.

Feliz likened executive orders to threats of punching someone, which are difficult to litigate against, as opposed to actual punches. AIC, in the meantime, is preparing for what might come down the pike. Similarly, mayors and local governments of “sanctuary cities” are building a litigation strategy in the event that Trump’s administration winds up pursuing efforts to cut funding from municipalities that are not fully cooperating federal immigration efforts.

“If you can’t motivate Congress, you can go to court and the court of public opinion,” Feliz said. “He’s not making America great again. He’s making America litigate again, because we’ll be in court for four years as far as I can see.”

The organization has also seen an increase in individuals calling in to offer support. While monetary donations and attendance at rallies are still encouraged, Feliz said that AIC has tried to take support to the next level by encouraging volunteers to put their skillsets to the best use.

A graphic designer, for instance, might design protest signs and create a sign tool kit to be shared with the immigrants’ rights community. A photographer who recently called to offer help was asked to rally fellow photographers to take and collect photos that AIC can use in its blogs and legal complaints. “It’s an important moment in time because you don’t always have an opportunity to have people offering you free labor,” Feliz said.

Across the country in San Diego, Calif., Enrique Morones, founder and director of Border Angels, has his focuses set south — where Trump has taken steps to fulfill his campaign promise of a border wall. An attack on any group — LGBTQ, Muslim, etc. — is an attack on all, he said.

Border Angels has received a pouring-in of requests and questions from individuals unaware of their rights and what they see on the news means for them. The organization offers free office hours on Tuesdays and immigration legal services on the first Sunday of each month, both taking place later this week.

Additionally, Border Angels has been active at protests and rallies and Morones has made the rounds speaking with conservative TV pundits such as Tucker Carlson and Bill O’Reilly to get the organization’s message out. The appearances have garnered both hate mail and those wishing to lend their services, according to Morones. A Valentine’s Day human chain across the Mexican Border in San Diego’s Friendship Park has also been organized.

The surge of support the organization has seen in recent weeks is reminiscent of the Central American refugee children’s crisis of 2014, he said. The Trump administration’s immigration policies have been a more uncertain challenge, according to Morones, as there is a broader scope and a lack of clarity even among the border authorities Border Angels works with, he said.

In the months and years ahead, Morones said that he plans to continue to work “above board” with border police and Bureau of Land Management all while spreading his organization’s message. “I’m not working against Trump,” he said. “I am working to promote our message, that love has no borders, and he doesn’t believe in that.”

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