When, just a week into his presidency, Donald Trump signed his executive order banning immigrants from seven majority-Muslim nations, the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Seattle shifted into high gear.
With travelers detained at Sea-Tac airport under the order, the CAIR-Washington staff of four began setting up meetings between pro bono immigration lawyers and families. However, Jasmin Samy, a Civil Rights Manager with CAIR-WA, says the coordination involved that night, and in the weeks since, quickly overwhelmed the office. “There are attorneys at the airport,” but CAIR often doesn’t know who might be in need of their help, Samy says. So, indicative of the way CAIR-WA does business, it got smart.
“There’s this amazing app called AirportLawyer.org. It started at SeaTac, a bunch of amazing attorneys started it with some techie guys … I’m glad to say CAIR is one of the partners,” Sami says. “In our emails to our clients, we say ‘If you do need to travel, please make sure that you submit your form and your itinerary, just in case. If something happens and you’re not out that day, in two to three hours, the attorney there will open the link and see who is supposed to be there that day from those countries.’”
CAIR was founded in June 1994 in Washington D.C. as a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group. The Seattle office launched in 2002 and is run by a staff of four and several volunteers. CAIR-WA operates on a $232,000 budget, and according to the CAIR WA website, “at least 98% of CAIR-WA’s funding during 2015 came from individual donors, almost all of whom reside in the state of Washington, or from matching funds from companies that employ our individual donors and volunteers.”
Since Trump’s election, an increase of hate crimes by individuals and bureaucratic harassment from the government has caused an uptick in the workload at CAIR-WA. Samy says their office has seen an influx of emails and phone calls from green card and visa holders as well as American citizens with American passports, concerned about the recent executive order—which was put on hold by a federal court but gained new life this week when the Trump administration issued a slightly revised version. “People have come to us more because they are worried how they will leave the country or how their family members will come in, or if they leave the country, how they will come back in. The minute the rumors started going around and the draft was distributed we started getting the calls, the emails, nonstop.”
Even after the travel ban was lifted, Muslims felt like they are traveling under a cloud of suspicion, Samy says. “People are coming back in, but a lot of people have been stopped and questioned. Nationwide people have been stopped, not just to give their password, but to open their social media and to actually just give their phone. Anyone from a Muslim background, not just from the seven countries, but from a Muslim majority country, it’s happening. It’s across the board, Egyptians, Saudi Arabians.” (Since Seattle Weekly spoke with Samy, the Trump administration has issued a new travel ban, this one targeting the same Muslim countries, minus Iraq).
Frustrating as this is, Samy also says her group has seen an outpouring of support, especially from Seattle’s legal community. CAIR-WA recently joined with leaders at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound and at the Tukwila Mosque to help answer questions from concerned community members. Going into the meeting, Samy knew immigration status would be a sensitive issue and people might not talk openly about it. “I need[ed] attorneys to come in and do private consultation. I only needed six, I got over 18 people wanting to help. We had over 40 private consultations that day.” While the Executive Order caused a significant increase in cases, Samy and the others at CAIR-WA had to continue with their current workload. “As CAIR-WA we still have to continue working on the same issues… We’re working as normal on our other cases, we can’t just drop the ball on that.”
This includes helping to educate people in the Seattle area about Islam, and to dispel some of the fears people have toward the religion. Samy has been asked to connect with community members by way of presentations on “What Is Islam?”
“I think that is beautiful, because now people want to know, what is Islam. We give a 20 minute presentation on what CAIR does and what services we provide or what we do as a civil rights organization and we give about 45 minutes for people to ask all types of questions. It’s amazing and beautiful how much curiosity there is out there.”