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[GUEST POST] The International Refugee Assistance Project

[This is a guest post by Elizabeth Van Nostrand of Aceso Under Glass.]

How do you judge the effectiveness of preparing for something that might never happen? Consider emergency room capacity; if you have enough space and staff to deal with a diphtheria epidemic, it will seem wasted during the 99% of the time there isn’t one. But this is false economy; during a crisis the extra reserve may be the difference between disruption and disaster.

Whatever the staff of the ACLU was doing on Friday morning, it wasn’t as important as what they did Friday afternoon, after Trump banned legal immigrants from reentering the country, even if they were in flight.  If you just evaluated the effectiveness of their Friday morning work, you’d miss that they were also holding the capacity to respond to Trump’s order as quickly as they did.  That speed mattered – not just to residents being badgered into giving up their green cards, but because it demonstrated to Trump and America that the consequences of violating the Constitution are severe and immediate. Once the crisis hit, it became easy to see how everything that went into preparing for it was high leverage – which was why people donated $20,000,000 over the weekend.

But the ACLU didn’t act alone. One partner was the International Refugee Assistance Project, founded by Becca Heller.  While in Jordan on an internship, Heller talked to Iraqi refugees there whose applications to emigrate to the US had been denied; they had given up because there was no way to appeal Homeland Security decisions. But rejected applicants can effectively appeal by asking that DHS “reconsider” their application. Using case law from asylum decisions, Becca filed requests to reconsider on behalf of these Iraqi refugees. Back home, she began recruiting other Yale law students, then students at other law schools. As her organization grew in scope,  it effected some at-the-margins policy work as well. A notable win here was using FOIA to force the DHS to release their refugee decision manual.  Last year IRAP received a grant from the Open Philanthropy Project to increase the extent of their policy work.

The majority of IRAP’s day to day work involves processing appeals for individual refugees whose requests to resettle in the U.S. were denied.  Their staff manages a team of volunteer law students and lawyers who pour hours into interviewing clients, investigating cases, collecting documents to prove refugee status, and writing appeals. This aspect of their work isn’t glamorous. It’s not arguing before the Supreme Court to establish rights people didn’t have a week before. It’s tracking down proof that someone is from the country they say they are, when 95% of record-keeping institutions in the country have been blown up and the procedure for getting a passport is to find Mr. Big Beard’s stall in the market and give him some money. It’s very ground-level work that makes an enormous difference in the lives of individual immigrants. But each person helped in this way represents the investment of many, many hours from lawyers and law students; if you were analyzing their effectiveness, they’d probably score poorly relative to AMF (especially if you included the value of in kind donations of time from skilled individuals). Where they did advocacy work, it was relatively quiet and uncontroversial.

And then Trump issued executive order “PROTECTING THE NATION FROM FOREIGN TERRORIST ENTRY INTO THE UNITED STATES”

Under American law, an arbitrary person can’t challenge a government policy or decision in court.  You have to have standing, meaning you personally are hurt by the action.  And to be represented by a lawyer, you have to say “I am represented by this lawyer,” which normally isn’t a problem, unless you’re being held incommunicado and no one knows where you are.  There are ways around this, but they’re time consuming.

IRAP’s ground level work meant that when Trump’s order went out, it took them approximately four seconds to create a list of extremely sympathetic/photogenic immigrants who would be caught at airports that day, for some of whom they were already the legal representative of record. It took another six seconds to find even more photogenic supporters of those immigrants who were willing to loudly support them in media interviews. Veterans are Not Fucking Around when it comes to their translators.

IRAP doesn’t have a long history of challenging the federal government the way the ACLU does.  But by partnering with the ACLU (with its very strong history of challenging the federal government), the National Immigration Law Center (extensive knowledge of immigration policy) and Yale Law School (I don’t know, cheap labor from students? Money?), they were able to launch the strongest possible campaign to force Trump to keep promises we made as a country.

Also, for someone whose organization spends most of its time on individual cases, Becca Heller sure is good at publicly nailing the government to the wall.  I want her on this team just so she can keep going on TV and talking over congresspeople who she deems insufficiently proactive.

Ultimately I think the part where Trump flat out ignored the judicial branch is more important than changes to immigration (although I would like to see us expand immigration), and the ACLU is best positioned to fight constitutional battles.  But the ACLU will need similar assistance from ground-level organizations for the next fight too, and they just got twenty million dollars. Yale Law School needs your money even less. IRAP, by contrast, has an annual budget of $2 million. I exhausted my charity budget at the beginning of the year on my personal cause area, Third World poverty, but my ability to continue giving is dependent on the United States having a functional government and economy. I am genuinely afraid Trump will destroy both of those. I’m donating $100 to IRAP to support the upcoming legal fight, and as a retroactive bonus for building this capacity before most of us knew how much it was needed.

I encourage others to donate to IRAP, or to find similar small charities doing ground level work.