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The Fight Continues: An Interview With ACLU Deputy...

The Fight Continues: An Interview With ACLU Deputy Legal Director Cecillia Wang

It both feels like a century ago and like it was yesterday—but here in America, this weekend marks the one year anniversary (or thereabouts) of President Trump’s absurdly unconstitutional attempt to ban Muslim immigrants from seven countries from entering the United States. In response to the attempted Muslim ban, more than 800 cafes across the United States joined us in an organized fundraiser to support the American Civil Liberties Union, whose legal actions in response to the Muslim ban helped strike the whole thing down in court. Together those cafes, alongside several other coffee companies and industry leaders, raised more than $400,000 for the ACLU, united under the twin banners of #RefugeesWelcome and #YesEqual inspired by coffee’s capacity for moral and civic leadership.

Our friends at the ACLU are so grateful for this work—not just for the financial contribution, which directly helped fund their travel and organizational efforts opposing the ban, but for the community support. They, too, are coffee drinkers—it’s a bunch of lawyers, after all!—and for ACLU staff and partners to see such overwhelming support at the cafe level during this time of crisis was incredibly meaningful for all involved.

Cecillia Wang. Photo: ACLU/Molly Kaplan ©2014 ACLU All Rights Reserved

Cecillia Wang is a deputy legal director at the National ACLU, and she’s worked previously as director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project. Wang was directly involved in the ACLU’s response to the initial Muslim ban, and has worked tirelessly over the last year to continue to oppose the ban and its many revisions. She’s also a coffee lover—make her a pour-over, please—and had the unique experience of seeing the outpouring of support from cafes across the San Francisco Bay Area, where she’s based, when stopping in for coffee to and from her work with ACLU National.

When the ACLU gave us the opportunity to speak with Cecillia Wang about the events of last year, and her work over the last 12 months, we absolutely jumped at the opportunity. The below interview does include talk of coffee, but only briefly; if you’re part of the “Stick to coffee, Sprudge” crowd, this might not be the feature for you. (We have a nice “Coffee at the Puppy Bowl” story you may prefer instead.) But for us it’s meaningful to give over these pages today to someone actively fighting the good fight with the ACLU, on behalf of immigrants and allies everywhere.

We’ll be organizing more work with the ACLU in 2018 as part of our bi-annual Night of 1000 Pours initiative. More info coming soon—watch this space. In the meantime, thank you to everyone who participated in last year’s ACLU fundraising work, including all 800+ cafes and dozens more companies who supported this work. Cecillia Wang says it best in the interview below. “We feel so supported by what cafes and local cafe communities have done over the past year,” she tells Sprudge co-founder Jordan Michelman. “It makes such a big difference, and we are incredibly grateful to have that partnership.”

The feeling is mutual.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Jordan Michelman: Hello Cecillia Wang, and thanks so much for speaking with us today on the anniversary of the 2017 ACLU coffee fundraiser. By way of introduction, can you let us know a bit about what your role is with the ACLU?

Cecillia Wang: Sure. I am one of three deputy legal directors at the National ACLU, and my issue areas include immigrants’ rights, voting rights, speech, privacy and technology, as well as human rights and national security. I help to oversee our program work in those issue areas and connect our litigation with our other kinds of advocacy, including legislative advocacy or communications work, so that we’re on track to meet our goals. I’m also the former director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project, and I still oversee that project. On the Muslim ban in particular, I’ve been on a legal team and argued the case in front of the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, just a few weeks ago on December 8th.

Michelman: Wow. That’s all pretty remarkable. Set the scene for us last year: what were you doing in advance of the attempted Muslim ban?

Wang: Well, we were still waiting to see what President Trump would come out with. He had just been inaugurated, and prior to the first version of his Muslim ban—it was issued on January 27 of 2017—so prior to that we were anticipating some kind of move not only to ban Muslims from immigrating to the United States but also, more broadly, to restrict immigration, to go after immigrant communities around the country in all the ways that he promised to as a candidate.

Even before he was inaugurated, we were ready. We had put in some pieces, put kind of a plan in place to respond to the president’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim agenda and also to push pro-immigrant and pro-integration, pro-equality measures around the country on the state and local level as well as on the national level.

Michelman: Okay, so jump to January 27, 2017—the ban comes out, in a pretty haphazard fashion, and the ACLU springs into action. What was that moment like inside the organization? Take us there.

Wang: Okay. On January 27, 2017, to take us back a year, we knew that the president was going to issue something on Muslim immigration among the first things he did in office. Just two days previously, January 25th, he’d issued two really broad ranging executive orders on immigration, one that focused on border enforcement, one that focused on interior enforcement, so we were already responding to those two executive orders. We got word on Friday the 27th that he was going to issue something on the Muslim ban.

As you may recall, reporters actually got a copy of the original executive order before anyone else did because it was leaked, so there was chaos. It came out around 4:30 in the afternoon on a Friday, January 27th, and we were immediately scrambling to read it as quickly as possible. We were anticipating that we might immediately see people being turned away at the airports. We worked with our partner organizations like the International Refugee Assistance Project, which ended up identifying a few people, including Hameed Khalid Darweesh, who were scheduled to land at JFK Airport in New York that evening. We immediately went to work with the Yale Law School Clinic students, with IRAP and with the National Immigration Law Center in order to start preparing legal papers in case Mr. Darweesh was turned away and in case others were being turned away.

From there, it’s almost like a minute by minute scenario. So many things were happening minute by minute starting as soon as the executive order was leaked on the late afternoon of January 27th. That night lawyers were at the airports waiting to see if Mr. Darweesh and others would be coming in or not. They were initially blocked from coming in, so we worked overnight to file a habeas petition for writ of habeas corpus, which is the form of lawsuit that you file when the federal government has custody over someone illegally. We got that on file early in the morning on Saturday, January 28th.

Meanwhile, we were of course seeing then by the time Saturday rolled around that there were other people, countless people really, who were trying to get in at airports around the country who were being detained and turned away by Customs and Border Protection officials. On Saturday as we were preparing the legal papers, getting them on file and trying to get a handle on what’s happening around the airports, ACLU lawyers around the country along with other volunteer lawyers and lawyers from other immigrants’ rights groups were mobilizing to the airports. We had a colleague, Andre Segura, who went to JFK, and Cody Wofsy, who went to SFO, and then other ACLU state-affiliate lawyers around the country going to airports joining with other lawyers. And so literally, you’re basically pounding the pavement to try to get a handle on what was happening, because government officials were not telling us.

We would go to the arrivals area of all these international airports and basically scan the arrivals area for people who looked like they were relatives anxiously awaiting people who were coming into the US. As you also saw, at the same time people were mobilizing to go and protest at airports around the country. We ended up seeing the immense show of support for immigrants and refugees from these banned countries with people turning out at the airports to resist the Trump administration’s executive order and to show support for immigrants both already in the United States and who were trying to come in through the airports that very day.

On the evening of Saturday, January 28th, we ended up going to federal court in Brooklyn, the eastern district of New York, and there was an immense crowd of about 1,000 people gathered outside of the courthouse, because we quickly got word out through social media that this hearing was happening. As our colleague Lee Gelernt, who’s an ACLU lawyer, was arguing the case of Mr. Darweesh in federal court in Brooklyn, there were people who were literally being put on planes by federal government officials at airports around the country illegally under the executive order.

There was this very dramatic moment when Peter Markowitz, who is an immigrants’ rights attorney in New York, rushed in. He had been at JFK all day long and rushed into the courtroom and went up to Lee Gelernt, who was standing at the lectern arguing to this US district judge, and whispered to him, “Get her to issue the ruling now. There is a woman who’s been put on a plane. It’s literally taxiing to the runway. She’s being deported now under the executive order, and we need a court order.” The court ruled as it did, staying or basically freezing all the deportations under the executive order.

Then further chaos ensued because the Trump administration had not rolled out the executive order in any coherent way. They also didn’t roll out the court order in any coherent way. So there were these volunteer attorneys, and even in JFK there were all of these city officials, New York City officials, and members of Congress who were desperately trying to persuade the CBP officials in the airport that in fact a federal court had ruled against the Trump administration and that they had to turn the planes around to the extent that they had people who were being deported so that they could come in to the United States.

Michelman: Wow. I know this happened in real life, but hearing you tell it, this story sounds like a movie.

Wang: It was a very intense weekend. We had lawyers around the country both at the ACLU and at other organizations and volunteer private attorneys who were doing everything they could and repeating this process of filing individual habeas corpus petitions in federal courts wherever there were airports where people were being turned away and deported under the executive order on January 28th.

Michelman: It’s crazy that this was just one year ago. Can you update us a little bit on where we’re at now? Many of our readers care about the issue of immigrants’ rights, and so I’m wondering what the ACLU’s work on this specific issue or set of issues is looking like now a year later.

Wang: Yeah. It has been an incredible year. 2017 was an amazing year of legal challenges and popular resistance. The same kind of dynamic that I just played out over the course of the 36-hour period starting on January 27, 2017, continued throughout the year. What was so critical throughout the year was that the lawyers went to court to stop the Trump administration from carrying out its illegal and white nationalist policies on immigration, supported by this groundswell, including all the cafes who came forward and raised money in communities; micro-communities sent in financial support and actual support in the form of speaking out, turning up, showing up around the country, whether it’s at airports or at marches or just expressing in local communities our resistance to the Trump administration’s plans on immigration and refugee admissions.

That continued, and so we’ve had the president on the ropes throughout the year. The ACLU with our partners filed the initial lawsuit that got a stop to version one of the Muslim ban. Then Trump came out with version two of the Muslim ban in March. We had to start at square one again amending our complaints, filing new lawsuits in order to stop version two in March. At that point, as you know, or soon after all of the immigrants’ rights organizations and the ACLU went forward with our legal challenges to the first version, the state of Washington jumped into the fray, which was a sign of how widespread the harms of Trump’s Muslim ban are that state governments were coming forward to say, “We’re going to take the Trump administration to court because our state interests are being harmed by these discriminatory anti-Muslim policies.”

Then you saw the victories that were scored not only by the ACLU but the state of Washington with version two, which rolled out in March. We similarly beat the Trump administration in court, and then he rolled out version three. Version three contained a provision meant to separate out the refugee piece from the visa piece, which meant that there were even more lawsuits filed. We again filed. We amended our complaint when version three came out and said, “Version three is like the other two versions.” The state of Hawaii, which had filed its lawsuit, also was litigating in parallel with us, and again the Ninth Circuit in the Hawaii case and the Fourth Circuit in our IRAP case again ruled against the Trump administration.

What’s going on right now is that version three has just been taken up by the Supreme Court. On Friday, January 19th, the Supreme Court granted a cert in the Hawaii case. Right now, we are still waiting for our decision from the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, so our case may end up in the Supreme Court as well, but basically the president has continued to doggedly pursue his Muslim ban and other anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim policies despite being rebuked by the courts time and again.

Beyond the specific legal issues that have to do with the Muslim ban, which are about the Establishment Clause or the First Amendment and about the Immigrant and Nationality Act, there’s this more fundamental issue that’s being raised in the Supreme Court case and that’s been raised all year long in all of the lower courts, and that is President Trump is asserting that he can bar anyone he wants from the United States, any non-citizens that he wants from the United States, whether it’s because they’re Muslim or because they’re from certain countries, and that no one can stop him. He’s basically taken the position that the courts have no power to review what the president does when it comes to immigrant policy.

That’s what the Ninth Circuit and the Fourth Circuit and the lower district courts have repeatedly blocked him from doing. They’ve categorically rejected the notion that the president can act without any judicial review, and that is one of the core issues that will be taken up by the Supreme Court when it hears the Muslim ban.

Michelman: People talked a lot last year about this specific claim by the administration, where they said, in effect, “Our ban doesn’t say the word ‘Muslim’ in it, so it’s not really a Muslim ban; it just happens to be from these countries.” Which resulted in people going back and saying, “Well, wait, you said X, Y, and Z on the campaign trail, and so here’s your statements to the contrary of what you’re trying to say.” How much of that is still in play? What role do past statements play in determining the true intent behind the ban?

Wang: It’s a great question. There are basically two questions on which the president’s own statements out of his own mouth or out of his own Twitter account have drastically deviated from what the president’s lawyers have said in court. The first one is what you’ve identified, which is the president’s lawyers come into court and they say, “This is not a Muslim ban. We’re not going after Muslims. We are going after national security risks from these countries.” The courts have been unanimous in saying, “Well, we’re going to consider what the president himself has said.”

He has reaffirmed time and again, including recently after taking office and with respect to the third version of his Muslim ban, that in fact he is going after Muslims. He is making good on his campaign promise of barring Muslims from immigrating to the United States. He was very clear in saying that. He initially said as a candidate, “I want to ban Muslims from coming to the United States,” and then he was told by advisors, “You can’t do that. It would be unconstitutional.”

From there he literally goes to Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, and says, “Giuliani, tell me how I can do my Muslim ban in a legal way.” The recommendation he got back was, don’t do a religious test for admission to the United States; the way you should do it is to go after territories or countries. In other words, they’re using countries as a proxy for religion, and you see that in the countries they’ve chosen now in the third version. Every single version of the ban that’s been in place has overwhelmingly affected Muslims because they’ve picked countries that are predominantly Muslim, overwhelmingly Muslim in their demographics.

The president has continued to say through his Twitter account that he wanted a tough ban from the beginning; he was told to water it down by the lawyers and that he was right all along. He wanted to go with the full-out version of his Muslim ban. That’s been the story that has come out in the courts, the story of how the president shifted from an explicit religion-based ban on Muslims to the proxy of a country-based ban that has the same effect of banning Muslims.

The second point in which the president has deviated from what his lawyers have said in court is that as a legal strategy, the government lawyers keep saying, “This is just a temporary suspension on the admission of people from these countries.” Well, that too has been belied by the fact that what originally was a 90-day suspension, they’ve been trying to pursue it for a year. The third version of the ban, which came in the form of this proclamation, has a feature of giving the president or the president assuming for himself the power to indefinitely re-up the ban and even to add new countries to the ban. It says so on the very face of the proclamation.

As many of our clients have said in our more recent filings in court, even if one of our individual clients was separated from their spouse or their child who had a visa to come to the United States and was blocked by Trump’s executive orders, even in those cases where our litigation has successfully reunited that family and got a court order that permits the person to come into the country to be united with their family member—even in those cases—the impact of the Muslim ban is still devastating. Everyone in the country and around the world knows that President Trump is going after Muslims and that that’s had devastating impacts on our communities around the country.

Michelman: Right. I can only imagine, but it’s so embarrassing to know that this is being done in our name, as Americans, and so many people feel the same way—that’s why you saw so much support for the ACLU’s fight on this issue.

I’m sure that it was a dizzying time while this was all going on, but I’m curious to know, did people at the ACLU see the support happening from the coffee community during this time last year?

Wang: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, we saw it on an individual level where I personally would go to cafes at home in San Francisco or while I was on the road and see that. Cafes play such a critical role in how our communities come together. We all know that. What was so heartening to see is it’s a two-way street in terms of the impact. I can go as just a resident of the local community to my local cafe and see I’ve got a way to plug in to the effort. I’ve got a way. We’re not going to have an airport protest every weekend, but I can drop my $5 bill and I know that’s going to support the work, which makes it possible for the lawyers to go and travel and do our work. That support makes it possible for us to lift up immigrant communities in all of these ways through our work, but it’s also a way for individuals and families around the country to say, we’re joining in.

That protest, the visibility of the American people saying no to the president’s policies, has been so critical throughout the year. We wouldn’t have these wins in court if we didn’t have the people behind us. At the end of the day, we’re going to have to keep going to court, because the president is undeterred, and he’s going to keep pushing illegal policies that we need to challenge through the court system. But at the end of the day, what’s going to really make the difference and what is going to definitively shut down the efforts of President Trump and his base to re-institute a white nationalist immigration policy is the flexing of the people’s political muscle.

What cafes have done in raising money, in putting up a flier, in displaying that Refugees are Welcome sign in the door or the window, all of those things are part of that groundswell of the American people saying, “We do not agree with President Trump.” It makes such a difference not only because it empowers regular people who want to show their support and actually take part in democracy, but it also is critical for the targeted members of our communities. When I am a refugee anxiously awaiting my relative who’s been blocked by President Trump and I go to my local cafe, I can see a visible manifestation of the community’s support and love for me, that the community is saying, “We don’t agree with Trump, we welcome you.” That is so beautiful to see.

Michelman: Did you ever have a moment while it was going on where you went into a cafe and you were like, “Hi, I work for the ACLU”? Did you ever have that moment?

Wang: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t recall actually specifically where, but I can recall on more than one occasion where I walked into a cafe and saw that people were raising money to support the ACLU and our work on the Muslim ban. I definitely, like I said, I’m walking into that cafe both as a customer but also as someone who’s doing the work, and it felt so good. Every time that has happened, I have felt so great about the fact that I feel supported by it both as an individual and as a representative of this organization. I wish I could remember the specific cafes, because it happened more than once, but I remember actually emailing my colleagues and saying, “Hey, I just went into this cafe and saw this amazing sign… ”

Michelman: That’s awesome.

Wang: Yes, and so many of my colleagues had the same experience.

Michelman: What’s your preferred cafe order? What do you like to get when you go out for coffee?

Wang: [laughs] I just get a pour-over.

Michelman: Always a pour-over?

Wang: Yes! I’m a drip coffee drinker.

Michelman: That’s awesome. Well, for people who really care about this stuff and want to stay involved, what are some ways people can stay involved going forward as the fight continues?

Wang: We have our People Power effort, which really has been made possible by the donations from people around the country. The ACLU has always been one of the leading civil rights and civil liberties legal outfits. People know that you can count on us to go and sue the government when the government needs suing. What I think has been really neat is that we have this People Power initiative so people can gather in local communities to say, we want to work on this issue, whether it’s the Muslim ban, whether it’s supporting Dreamers or supporting abortion rights. Whatever it is, people can ban together. You can go to PeoplePower.org and organize yourselves around the issues you care about that the ACLU is working on.

As our country gets more and more polarized, and as President Trump’s base continues egging him on to enact white supremacist policies, we also have on the opposite end of the spectrum; well, actually it’s not really a spectrum, I would submit that the great majority of American people disagree with what he is doing. He’s got a very vocal minority base that’s egging him on, whereas the majority of people in this country are fighting to maintain our better values. We care about integrating, we care about fairness, we care about equality; we care that everybody gets an equal opportunity to live their best life in their local communities.

I think that we’re going to have protracted fights. We see it right now with the government, with the Republicans briefly shutting down the government because they’ve refused to give Dreamers a chance to continue living and contributing in the United States. As those kinds of fights come down to legislative battles, I think that people around the country can literally speak up by calling a member of Congress, who’s making a very important decision to say, “I’m not a Dreamer. I am not an immigrant myself, but I care about this, and I’m going to be voting accordingly.” I think that’s really critical.

I think that one of the concerns that we had as civil rights advocates, as human rights advocates is January 28, 2017 was this crescendo moment where you saw just thousands of people. You know the president was sitting there in the White House watching CNN, watching MSNBC, watching these protests, and the concern we have is you can’t protest in the airport every day. You can’t protest in the airport every weekend. We just had this fantastic, perhaps annual Women’s March, which I took part in and so many people took part in. That’s a crescendo moment where the people are expressing their will in numbers, but how do we keep that up every day?

I think that you keep that up every day by expressing solidarity in your local community and by calling your representatives in Congress and having those one-on-one conversations with your awkward uncle, who may not be informed on these issues. It’s the same way that we won on LGBT equality. It’s having those immediate conversations in our families, in our local communities and keeping up the pressure, translating that up to the national level. What they feel you can do is to help people to coalesce and have those conversations locally, and we can definitely help in translating that local action to the national level. We all just have to keep doing our part wherever we are.

Michelman: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for your time today, and thank you for everything that you do with your professional work on this. It’s hugely important. I really appreciate you and everyone at our small company appreciates you.

Wang: Thank you. I really want to emphasize that we feel so supported by what cafes and local cafe communities have done over the past year. It makes such a big difference, and we are incredibly grateful to have that partnership and to have all of the work that we can do collectively because people pitch in everywhere.

Michelman: That’s fantastic—thank you so much Cecillia. They better choose somebody good to play you in the movie.

Wang: [laughs] Thanks.

Learn more and get involved at ACLU.org and PeoplePower.org. Special thanks to Danielle Silber and Cecillia Wang of ACLU National for organizing this interview. Even more thanks to Sprudge staffers Robyn Brems and Zac Cadwalader for their tireless work behind the scenes organizing last year’s fundraising effort. 

#refugeeswelcome

#yesequal


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