Travelers’ aide

Why attorney Iman Boundaoui spends her nights at an airport terminal

Why attorney Iman Boundaoui spends her nights at an airport terminal - Photo by Rena Naltsas
By Paul Dailing

Once or twice a week, Drinker Biddle & Reath associate Iman Boundaoui hops on the Blue Line to O’Hare International Airport after work to sit by the McDonald’s in Terminal 5.

As part of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Chicago Travelers Assistance Program, Boundaoui is one of about 300 regular volunteer attorneys who staff the international terminal to provide assistance to travelers detained in the wake of President Donald Trump’s various travel bans from Muslim-majority countries. Federal judges have blocked both executive orders seeking travel bans, but the political mood is putting more travelers, visa-holders and non-native residents under additional scrutiny, Boundaoui said.

Boundaoui said she personally sees four to five cases a night.

“Immigration attorneys who have been doing this for years will tell you we’ve never seen so much expedited removal before,” she said.

The group, formed in the wake of mass protests at O’Hare in January, staffs the terminal in groups of two to four attorneys, interpreters and/or law students from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. They intervene where needed by request of families of a traveler held for additional questioning, inquiring into status or informing officials of language barriers, special needs or mitigating circumstances.

The travelers have no right to an attorney, as they’re not citizens. Officials have no obligation to speak to or listen to the lawyers.

CL: How did you get involved?

Boundaoui: I joined the group of attorneys working at the table the day after the executive order — the first executive order — went into effect. It was a Saturday and I just happened to run into a friend at the demonstration happening at O’Hare who was a former colleague of mine at Drinker Biddle. She told me that there were a bunch of attorneys sort of stationed outside of Terminal 5. If I wanted to volunteer, she thought that they needed interpreters, attorneys who spoke Arabic. I went over to the table and just saw the frenzy that was the early days of the O’Hare legal group. It was about 70 attorneys huddled around three folding plastic tables doing various tasks. I just checked in, added my name to the listserv which at the time was being run on just some legal notepad.

CL: What about this has been the most rewarding?

Boundaoui: When you’re working directly with families on the ground, when people come to you and say, “I have a sister or a brother I’m waiting for and they’ve been five hours and I’m waiting and I’m nervous. What’s going on?” And when you can provide a little bit of clarity and provide a little bit of assistance, at the end of a long 70 hours at the airport you have a family member hugging you and saying “I don’t know what I would have done if you weren’t here. This is incredible. I can’t believe you guys are doing this. This is so needed. You made me feel so much better. I really feel like I had somebody here with me.” That’s the absolute most rewarding part. It’s what keeps all of us going.

CL: What has been the hardest part about this for you?

Boundaoui: One of the most difficult things is coming to terms with the fact that as attorneys we’re not allowed to intervene or be a part of secondary questioning — that there’s just no right to an attorney during secondary inspection. This is a hotly contested issue when it comes to U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, but we know that for visa-holders, there just isn’t. Having to tell families that over and over and seeing the shock on people’s faces — especially because of what we know can happen in secondary inspection. You can be negotiating legal rights back there with Customs, and some people don’t even know that that’s happening and other people do but they don’t know what to do about it. If you’re faced with the process of expedited removal or canceling your visa and you’re presented with all these options, ideally you’d want an attorney around to explain the ramifications of all of that. The fact there isn’t a recognized right, as an attorney, that’s hard to fathom. It’s hard to explain to families, to pass on that, right now, that is how our legal system is.