In age of Trump, a less dim view of lawyers?

Mike Mosedale, BridgeTower Media Newswires

Say what you will about Donald Trump, the new president may have just elevated the public's view of lawyers and the work they do - a potentially major shift in the perception of a profession that has long ranked at the bottom of opinion polls.

After Trump issued an executive order barring citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. and halted admissions under the U.S. refugee program, lawyers assumed a central role in the unfolding drama.

Protesters at the San Francisco International Airport even took up the most unlikely chant - "Let the lawyers in!" - in response to reports that Customs and Border Protection agents had refused to permit detainees from meeting with counsel. Across the country, an estimated 4,000 attorneys volunteered in the fight against Trump's so-called Muslim ban.

Meanwhile, attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union handed Trump the first defeat of his young presidency when U.S. District Judge Anne Donnelly of Brooklyn issued a nationwide stay that blocked the deportation of travelers covered by the order.

For the ACLU, that surprisingly swift victory, punctuated by similar rulings from at least four other federal judges, elicited an unprecedented flood of online contributions. Over the weekend, the organization raked in $24 million in donations - about six times the average annual haul.

The same dynamic is playing out on the local level, according to Carol Stoddart, the director of development for the ACLU of Minnesota.

"This is really unprecedented. My colleagues at affiliates all around the country are seeing it, too," said Stoddart. "The support has been amazing."

Since November, Stoddart said, the Minnesota chapter's membership roll swelled from around 8,000 to more than 14,000 two weeks ago. She said this weekend's turmoil appears to have stoked the trend.

Over the course of a typical month, according to Stoddart, the ACLU of Minnesota receives five online donations; on Monday alone, 30 donors contributed a total of $3,400.

She said some of the new money will be used to beef up the ACLU's lobbying operations at the state Capitol, where the organization just hired a second lobbyist, Mark Haase.

Over the weekend, Minnesota-based immigrant advocacy groups were likewise flooded with donations, as well as expressions of support and solicitations from prospective volunteers.

Regina Jefferies, an attorney at the Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School, said she has been struggling to keep track of all the requests from lawyers who want to help.

"Since the news of the executive order, the response has been just enormous," said Jefferies, who is coordinating the shifts for volunteer lawyers staffing the international arrivals terminal at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. "I'm on email more than I've ever been in my life, just trying to connect people," she added.

Jefferies estimated that she has personally spoken to at least 75 lawyers from across the practice spectrum since the weekend. Even those with no training in immigration in law can help, she said, because "we need eyes and ears on the ground to report on things that are happening in real time."

As a lawyer in Phoenix, Jefferies witnessed first-hand the passions engendered by a sudden change in immigration policy when the Arizona Legislature enacted a highly controversial, anti-illegal immigration measure, Senate Bill 1070, in 2010.

"There was a huge outpouring of response but it was nothing compared to what I'm seeing now," said Jefferies.

What's the difference?

"This seems like such a fundamental violation of the basic principles of due process and rule of law," Jefferies ventures. "And I think that's something that most people will not abide, even if some of those people don't understand all the details."

John Keller, the executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said he has been too busy to track all the contributions that have come to his organization over the past few days.

But Keller said he was "very gratified" by the show of support, which he said he hopes will ultimately translate in the hiring of four to five additional staff needed to handle an expected surge in deportation cases. He also said his organization could also use another full-time staffer just to help coordinate pro bono lawyers.

"On a values level, I feel like we are living in a moment where the definition of who we are as a nation is being called into question in a way that I've never seen," said Keller. "I've never felt prouder to be doing the work we do."

Teresa Nelson, the legal director at the ACLU of Minnesota, said she has too has been overwhelmed by the intensity of the response to the Trump travel ban and the meaning it gives to the work of the lawyers who are fighting it.

"I'm awed by all the people who are stepping up and saying, 'I want to do whatever I can to stop this,'" she said.

Published: Fri, Feb 24, 2017