Rebecca Heller, co-founder and director of the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), urges advocating for the rights of refugees against the waves of right-wing populist xenophobia sweeping through the U.S. and Europe. She was on campus Oct. 18 to deliver the College of Human Ecology’s Iscol Family Program for Leadership Development in Public Service Lecture.
Heller said her interest in the legal challenges facing refugees began on a trip to Jordan the summer after her first year in law school when met with six refugee families from Iraq. Each of the families independently identified their primary problem as a legal one, due to both the United Nation’s and U.S.’s complex bureaucratic asylum process.
In 2008, while still in law school, she founded IRAP with several peers with a mission to organize law students and lawyers to develop and enforce a set of legal and human rights for refugees and displaced persons.
“When [President] Trump was elected, we realized that the fundamental nature of our work was about to really significantly shift, where we were going to go from arguing that the refugee process should be improved and working with the government to find technical ways to make things more efficient, to defending the very existence of a refugee system or admissions at all,” Heller said.
After launching IRAP chapters at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Columbia, Stanford and New York University law schools, Heller began to think how best to mobilize and deploy her “army of a couple thousand lawyers” who wanted to fight for the rights of refugees.
The Monday after the president’s inauguration, a version of the travel ban was leaked to Heller. She fired off messages to her vast network of law students and pro bono lawyers, urging them to call their clients who had travel documents and say, “Get on a plane, right now. The doors to the U.S. are closing.”
Shortly after, Heller had the realization that whenever the travel ban order was signed, there would be thousands of people in the sky who had legal permission to enter the U.S. when they took off but would land as undocumented aliens – and no one knew what would happen to them.
“The travel ban was signed at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 7. We had clients coming in that day, and we had lawyers waiting for them,” she said. After a client was detained upon landing, Heller worked with other organizations to file a civil action against the state agent who holds the defendant in custody.
“We stayed up all night and we drafted a nationwide class-action habeas petition … and we filed it at 5:30 in the morning because wanted to make sure it was on file with the court before any international flights could depart so that no one could be deported. We got a hearing for that night in Brooklyn at 7:30 p.m. … at 8:30 p.m. we won, and they released 2,100 people from airports all over the country.”
Heller and IRAP have taken legal action against all three travel bans. Their most recent filing, “International Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump,” was won by IRAP. The 91-page decision was issued in the early hours of Oct. 18.
Heller, who lost family in the Holocaust, thinks often about the ship The St. Louis, which carried Jewish refugees from Europe to the United States. The ship traveled from U.S. port to U.S. port but was not allowed to dock. It eventually had to return to Europe.
“They’ve actually traced the fate of a lot of people from The St. Louis, and most of them ended up dying in concentration camps. … and I think – what if every single port The St. Louis docked at, there were 5,000 Americans standing there chanting, ‘Let them in.’ Maybe history would have been a little bit different.”
Quoting Dr. Seuss, Heller told the audience in conclusion: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”
Stephen D'Angelo is assistant director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.