ALAN MATHIOS: My name's Alan Mathios. I'm the Rebecca Q. And James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology, and it's my great pleasure to welcome you to the 2017 lecture of the Iscol Family Program for Leadership Development in Public Service. And I'm really privileged that in the audience today-- Jill is talking right now, but I want to introduce--
--Jill Iscol, Ken Iscol, and Kiva-- their daughter-- who are the leaders of and the people responsible for establishing this lectureship. And I'll give you a little history in a little bit. And I have gotten to know them personally over my 11 years of being dean. And it's one of the treasured relationships that I have had the privilege of being part of. So if you could just three of you stand up and be acknowledged, that would be great.
Kiva, come on.
So Jill and Ken established the Iscol Family Program for Leadership Development with one thing in mind-- she wanted to invite speakers that would inspire the students to understand that every person has the capacity to make fundamental change for the good. And I've been witnessing-- so all the speakers that have come through, it's been totally remarkable to see not only what they talk about but the follow-up and how students engage with them and learn about what I would call social entrepreneurship, public leadership in the most beautiful, beautiful sense that we could think about. And so it really has totally met its purpose.
And in that spirit, about halfway through the establishment one of the program-- so the program was established about 16 years ago, and about halfway through that we wanted to expand the program. And it was John Eckenrode who worked with Jill originally and established this program.
John Eckenrode is a faculty member in the Department of Human Development. He was responsible for working with Jill and Ken and getting this going, and had the idea that we can extend the reach by starting a summer internship program where students would be funded to be in the public leadership sector and work-- across the world sometimes-- to get summer experiences and really live the life of what it means to be servicing others through their efforts. And so over the years that we've had this, we have already placed about 150 students through their program in places all over the world-- locally in Tompkins County all the way through countries really that span the globe.
And we talk with the students when they come back from these experiences. These are life-changing experiences. So when you think about the impact you've had-- Ken, and Jill, and Kiva now-- just think about the lives you've touched not only through what the students have done but through affecting directly their lives, and their futures, and their careers. It's remarkable.
And then one other comment before I introduce Professor Wildeman, who will introduce the speaker-- just a reflection of what's happened from some of my discussions with Jill early on. So Jill was so passionate about communicating about the impacts that people have had that she started this idea way back and started talking about-- and I remember it was so fascinating-- she had this idea of starting a book that would bring these stories together. And it was really wonderful to see the transformation of Jill talking about it and then her ability to pull it off.
So she wrote this book called Hearts on Fire. It's a phenomenal book with stories of the different people who've touched the lives of so many in their own ways. And each story, you've read each one and it brings you to tears almost. So that book was published.
And then from that, she established something even deeper where it continues. So instead of writing another book, she actually started a project where more and more updates of new people coming in are put on the web. And it's this great website you can get.
For the students especially, if you want to think about your potential place in the world, go to that website, Hearts on Fire, and start reading the stories, and you will come away with just this big wow. So I want to thank Jill for all that you've done to push this agenda. It's a wonderful agenda.
So now I'm going to introduce Chris Wildeman. Chris will introduce our wonderful speaker today. And he took over the leadership from John Eckenrode, as I spoke to before. John led this program for its life, has done a wonderful job with that, and now has transferred the leadership of the program to Professor Wildeman. And it's been a very smooth transition. So I want to thank John especially for all of the work you've done and Chris for taking over and not missing a beat, which is wonderful.
Chris, so he's a faculty member in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management, my home department. And I've been able to witness the power that bringing a star faculty member to a campus can mean in terms of developing a whole area of research that is so impactful. So I'll tell you a little bit about Chris's research.
He is the co-director of the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect. And that program was also started with John Eckenrode. And this is administrated through the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, which Chris is now an associate director of. We just got word that this has been re-funded for a number of years by the federal government. This allows people throughout the nation to get strong, reliable data on the amount of child abuse that's occurring throughout the United States.
In addition, since 2013 he has been a visiting fellow at the Bureau of Justice Statistics in Washington, D.C., and since 2015 a senior researcher at the ROCKWOOL Foundation Research Unit in Copenhagen, Denmark.
His research and teaching interests revolve around the consequences of mass imprisonment for inequality, with an emphasis on families, health, and children. He is also interested in child welfare, especially as it relates to child maltreatment and the foster care system. In 2013, he was the recipient of the Ruth Cavan Young Scholar Award from the American Society of Criminology. It is my great pleasure to introduce Chris Wildeman.
CHRIS WILDEMAN: So nothing makes you more nervous than hearing about yourself, at least if you're me, so let's move on from that quickly. So thanks for the nice words, Alan, and thanks to the Iscols for your continuing support.
Today it's my very great pleasure to introduce Becca Heller, who's going to be the 2017 Iscol Family Program for Leadership Development in Public Service lecturer this year. I want to be brief, partially because I get nervous, but partially because I want to get this show on the road, so I'm just going to say a couple of things.
So, as I imagine all of you know, Becca is the director and co-founder of the International Refugee Assistance Project, or IRAP, as I think you'll probably hear it called a good bit during the program. She's also spearheaded many of the legal challenges to the travel bans that have sprung up in this last year.
I just want to say three things really quickly about her, having given that brief intro. The first is that I think we can all agree that this is incredibly important work and that if someone didn't undertake it that both a tremendous number of individuals across the world and also our nation and a host of other nations would suffer. And so I think there is this incredible human rights and human suffering component to Becca's work inflicting it-- or, stopping it, not inflicting it.
The second thing is that Becca has gotten a tremendous amount of recognition for her work already. So, as Alan noted, even though I'm a couple of years older than Becca, I've only won one prize ever. But Becca has won the Charles Bronfman Prize, a Skadden Fellowship, an Echoing Green Fellowship, a Gruber Human Rights Fellowship, and a Dartmouth College Martin Luther King Jr. Emerging Leader in Social Justice Award. I think she probably won three or four awards since she got on campus as well.
And the third thing I want to say-- and as someone who has no attention span and really struggles to sit through lectures, this is important for me-- I just think this is going to be a dynamite lecture and I'm really looking forward to it. I've known Becca for about eight hours, but she's hilarious, she's warm, she's funny, she's blunt, and she's really passionate and inspiring. And so I think it's going to be a great next 50ish minutes. So, thank you, Becca.
REBECCA HELLER: I move this away, right? Yeah? OK.
Hi. Thank you so much for having me. Thank you to Jill, and Ken, and Kiva for organizing this and for giving me the fanciest ride to Ithaca I've ever had. Thank you so much to Cornell for having me. And a special shout-out to the Cornell IRAP chapter. I know some of you are represented in this room.
I'm going to talk some about fighting for refugees in the age of Trump, but I'm also going to focus a lot on how I got into this work and how the work got built up, because I think that-- as you've heard-- Jill's passion is for igniting passion in young people, which I was once, when that head shot was taken actually-- it's not even up there anymore; see, my youth has already passed-- and how I stumbled into this.
So I was between my first and second years at Yale Law School. Yale is a university in Connecticut--
We had a meeting today in the Pennsylvania Room of the hotel, and I was like, we're in New York, why is it called the Pennsylvania Room? And then I noticed that all of the conference rooms were named after different Ivy League colleges and was sort of offended, actually. Like you can't come up with anything else, guys.
So I was between my first and second years of law school. And I went to law school knowing I wanted to do something with social justice. Prior to law school, I had gone through a variety of different activisty causes. I got teacher certified to teach eighth grade social studies in the state of New Hampshire while I was an undergrad at another college named for a room at the Statler Hotel.
But then I got a copy of the curriculum of what you have to teach kids in social studies in New Hampshire, and I was like, this isn't true, I cannot tell young people this. So ended up in Sub-Saharan Africa for a couple of years before college doing HIV-related malnutrition work. Deferred law school at the last second because of a boy. Worked on freedom to marry stuff in the state of Vermont. Ironically, in the course of that broke up with the boy and then ended up at law school. So I felt like--
Where I met a new boy who I'm now married to, so it turned out for the best. Thanks, Yale.
It's like the lower the admission rate is, the higher possibility that I'll find a good highly-vetted partner, was why I went there mostly.
But I felt that in each of my vaguely attention deficit disorder forays into different social issues I would work on it to a certain extent and then ultimately I would run up against this wall of the law. And when it hit me the most, I had a friend who was at another university in Cambridge that's named after a conference room at the Statler Hotel, and he was organizing a protest against solitary confinement. And it was a really stupid protest in retrospect, because it was a sleep-out on the steps of the Boston state capitol in February, which, to be fair, might adequately mimic certain conditions in solitary confinement isn't a good way to draw a crowd.
But I went down there anyway in "solidarity," as we call it. And there's 14 of us just dying of pneumonia on the steps of the Capitol in Boston. And we're going in a circle talking about what brought us there.
And this one woman said, I have a son-- so the difference between prison and jail is that jail is where you are before you're convicted and prison is where you go once you have a sentence. So you shouldn't be in jail very long, because you have a right to a speedy trial. We have a document called the Constitution that certain office-holders haven't read. But it says you have a right to a speedy trial.
So one of the women in the circle says, I have a son and he's been in jail for a year and a half because they keep giving him these incompetent attorneys. And we're all like, oh my god, like that's completely illegal. And she's like, well, do you know what part of the law says that's illegal? Can anyone help us?
And these are people who are willing to freeze out one of their eyeballs sleeping on the steps of the city capital, but none of them could do anything for this woman because no one there had a law degree. And I was like, OK, I'm going to leave here with nine fingers but I'm going to apply to law school.
And I was worried that I would get to law school and it would turn out that law was also sort of BS, that institutional social change was difficult because institutions are intransigent and no amount of terminal degrees was going to make a difference. And I, frankly, have been really pleased to discover that being a lawyer is super frigging empowering, ranging from my social justice issues to when the movers try to screw me and tell me that I owe them more, and I can just look at that contract and be like, well, I'm a lawyer and the contract says. So for any of you who are-- which is a really obnoxious and classist way to use your law degree.
But for any of you who are thinking of going to law school, please come talk to me. I have found just being able to call someone and say I'm a lawyer in the course of advocating for a really disenfranchised person to make such an enormous difference that if you're thinking about going to law school and you want to fight oppressive institutions, I would really encourage you probably to do so.
So the summer between my 1L and 2L year, I ended up doing an internship in Israel. I was working on Palestinian human rights issues, because, as a Jew who thinks that Israel should exist, I also felt that they should behave better toward Palestinians. And long story short, the internship, they didn't have anything for me to do. And part of that was the organization's fault, but part of that was my fault because it turns out that in Israel the law is practiced in Hebrew, which I don't speak, which I could have arguably figured out, but I blame Yale Law School because they don't actually teach you anything.
So I was sitting in this air-conditioned office in Tel Aviv watching Mad Men-- we're in August of 2008-- which is a really good show. But AMC does limited-run seasons, and it was only two seasons so far, so I ran out of episodes to watch, and I was like, well now what? And I really hate wasting my time, mostly because we're all going to die, but also for some less-morbid reasons.
And I kept hearing about all of these Iraqi refugees who were in Jordan. And the way that I consume news then, which is the way that I consume news now, which is the way that I'm guessing a lot of you young people-- and maybe some of you less-young people-- in the room consume news is that I wake up in the morning and I have the nine internet sites that I go to, and I scroll down, and I read all the headlines, and then I read the full article about what Beyonce named her twins.
So I felt like I had some degree of awareness even at just a headline abstract level of the various social issues going on in the world, but it had somehow completely bypassed me that there was this huge Iraqi refugee crisis. There were two million displaced Iraqis living in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
So I quit my internship. And I just felt like as an American-- and IRAP, I should say, is an apolitical organization. I am not an apolitical person, and I had some strong feelings about the US invasion of Iraq, which I will sum up publicly simply as saying that I felt that as a US citizen I had an obligation to at least understand the humanitarian fallout of my own country's foreign policy and how it was affecting individual people. So I--
That shouldn't deserve applause. People should be more civically engaged. I appreciate it, though. But what a sad statement that is on the state of civic engagement on the planet.
So I emailed everyone I could think of and I was like, hey, do you know any Iraqi refugees who might want to talk to me? And through a very attenuated series of people, I ended up being able to go to Jordan and I met with six families. And I met all of them in their homes, because I was really interested in what the social situation was that they were living, and what infrastructure was available to them, and the human ecology aspect-- which I learned what human ecology was today; it's pretty interesting, actually-- and that the human ecology aspect of the refugee crisis.
And because of my previous work, I expected people to have what I would consider typical humanitarian aid challenges. I expected food shortages, I expected people to lack access to adequate health care, I expected people to lack access to education. And all of those things were present. But what really surprised me is that each of the families I met with independently identified their primary problem as essentially a legal one, which was that they-- do you guys know the song "Closing Time" by Semisonic? So I quote it too much, but I just think the chorus is so apt for describing the plight of refugees.
So in Iraq something really horrible happens to you and you flee to Jordan. Jordan is your country of first asylum. And the situation for most refugees in their countries of first asylum is perfectly summed up by the chorus of "Closing Time," which is "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here."
And the only way to get out of there, or even to get recognized so that you're eligible for foreign aid, is to go through this completely insane, complicated legal adjudication that the United Nations does followed by 87 different agencies of the US government or whatever country you're trying to, at the end of which someone makes a decision on which your life literally depends, but in which you are banned from having a lawyer even at your own expense.
So all of the families I met were independently stuck at different parts of this process and had no idea what was going on. One of them had actually been rejected. He was a ballet dancer who had fled Iraq in 1992 because he had refused to put on a modeling show for one of Saddam Hussein's wives.
Sorry, I have my phone here so that I can make sure I keep it to 40 minutes, and someone just sent me a really distracting text, which defeated the purpose of having my phone here to keep me focused.
He had refused to put on a private show, and then they wanted to kill him so he fled. His wife had majored in English literature. And at their interview, the interviewer had asked them-- this is for the Department of Homeland Security-- who's your favorite author, and she said, Shakespeare. And the interviewer said, what's your favorite Shakespeare play? And she said, Romeo and Juliet, and he rejected them on credibility grounds, because he said if you really studied English literature you wouldn't come up with something so cliche. Everyone's read Romeo and Juliet. You must be lying. And their refugee claim was rejected. This is how arbitrary this system is.
The other thing that happened is that everyone I met thought that they were on some kind of a wait list, and if they could just hang in there long enough, they would get a call from someone saying, OK, your application is up, you can get on a plane to Canada, to the US, to Australia. And so I felt at the very least what I could do is figure out how long the wait list was.
And a thing that I really like about working with refugees-- having now done work with a variety of what you could loosely define as disenfranchised populations-- especially in legal aid, because I think that the law and the courts is very abstract if you don't have enough food. So taking someone who is homeless, or has a drug dependency, or has a really serious public health issue and trying to convince them to show up for court on time and wear a jacket can be very challenging. And a lot of legal aid often is just trying to convince people that they should invest enough in their case, even though it's such an abstraction and even though relief is years away that they should still show up.
And with my refugee clients, I have the opposite problem, which is that they email me every day and are like, what have you done for my case in the last 24 hours? And I totally love that, because that's what I would do also. And I find it really satisfying to fight for people who want to fight so hard for themselves.
And I think refugees by definition are survivors. The definition of a refugee is someone who is singled out for persecution in their home country and then crossed a border.
Last time I tried to go to Canada, I forgot my passport. Literally, it was a surprise party for my father-in-law, and I forgot you needed a passport to go to Canada, and I couldn't go.
Let alone being through some horrible violent trauma-- that I don't need to describe and objectify people-- and then getting across the border from Iraq, to Syria, to Jordan. The level of resiliency and tenacity that that requires, I think is really incredible. And I found it really frustrating that they had so little information that they were just sitting around waiting for a phone call and completely helpless. But on the flip side, I felt like if I could go back to them and say the wait list is six months, the wait list is 12 months, the wait list is 18 months, then they could make a plan and they could at least have something to hang onto.
So at the end of the week I finagled a meeting with the US Embassy by faking an issue with my passport, because the only people who answer the phone at the US Embassy in Oman are Consular Affairs for US citizens. And this poor consular officer met with me and I was like, Hi, I'm a Yale law student, I'm interested in this refugee processing thing that you guys have going on here-- "research, academia"-- can you tell me about it?
And she very wisely got me someone from public affairs, who got someone from the United Nations on the phone. And they were explaining the process to me and it didn't make any sense. And in retrospect, it turns out it's because it's a completely nonsensical process that hasn't been updated since 1951.
And so then at the end I was like, OK, I get all of that. How long is the wait list? And they were like, what wait list?
And I've thought about that a lot, not just because it's a really good metaphor for giving lectures about refugees, but because I don't think that the wait list is a nefariously propagated rumor by the United Nations and the US government that's intended to placate people. I think that it is a rumor that arose from the refugee community itself. Because I think that if you live at the bottom of a deep, dark hole, in order to get out of bed in the morning you have to believe that there's some kind of light at the top.
And the fact that the best symbol of hope that the community could come up with was the epitome of a dysfunctional bureaucracy struck me as so tragic that I wanted to go back to school and try to do something about it.
So I get back to the university in New Haven named after a conference room at the Statler Hotel. I didn't know that would be a meme before I got up here and started talking, but I've been enjoying it so you're going to be stuck with it, I think. And myself and another student-- Jon Finer-- decide to start a student group called the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, because I'm really into the literal naming.
And I was super intimidated by Jon. I had never been to the Middle East before, at least the Arab Middle East. I'd spent two weeks in Israel once my sophomore year in high school. And I knew like nothing about the region, I knew nothing about the politics, or the history, or the language. I knew nothing about refugee law or immigration law. And Jon was a Rhodes Scholar who had been embedded with the Washington Post as a writer first in Baghdad and then in the surge in Fallujah.
And the first time I went to a meeting with him, there was another guy there who was a veteran and they were talking about how many flak jackets do you have to put in the bottom of a van to protect your butt if you go over an IED. And I was just sitting there being like, I lived in Vermont for a year. And Finer knew so much, and I was just like, what do I possibly have to contribute to this effort, and spent a lot of the time being really afraid of him-- which I still am a little bit.
And I'll say that Finer went on to become John Kerry's chief of staff. So then a joke that I like to make is that when you co-found IRAP you can take two divergent paths. One is to run IRAP and the other is to run the State Department. But on the flip side, only one of us still has a job.
So the first thing we had to do was recruit some students at the student activities fair. So I was like, OK, if you make a poster, I'll make a sign-in sheet. And Finer goes, how do I make a poster?
And I was like, you buy a piece of poster board. Do you have photos of the time that you spent in Iraq. He's like, yes. I was like, great. Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, really big in the middle, and then put photos around it. And he was like, OK.
And we got back to the student activities fair and he had made just the shittiest poster I've ever seen. First of all, he wrote IRAP instead of Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, so nobody knew what it was. And it was just scrawled at the top. And then there were three really sad photos just stuck at the bottom.
And it was this incredibly weirdly empowering moment for me where I was like-- I didn't have a Rhodes scholarship or ride around on a bunch of flak jackets to write articles for the Post about what happened in Fallujah, but we would have no student volunteers if it weren't for me. I have a skill set that is applicable to this endeavor.
And I it's always important to me to tell that story in audiences of young and youngish people who are trying to do things, because I think that you have no idea what things you know how to do that will end up being really valuable to some kind of effort. If Jon hadn't had me, there would be no IRAP because there would have been no student volunteers. So luckily there were, and they signed up, and we started working on some cases.
And about three weeks later, Mike Wishnie-- who is my life mentor, role model, and also happened to be our supervising professor-- calls us into his office and he said, Becca and Jon, how's IRAP going? And we're like, good, thanks. And he's like, you guys aren't working on cases, are you? And we were pretty dumb, but not completely dumb, so we were like, that's a funny question, Mike, why are you asking? And he said, because that's illegal, because you're not lawyers, and that's called the unauthorized practice of law. And we were like, haha, good thing we're not doing it.
And so we walked out of his office and we were like, where are we going to find some lawyers? And then we thought, well, these law firms come here and recruit all the time. Why don't we just call them up and say, hey, do you want to stick your claws into some Statler conference room-named law students? If you agree to take on these cases pro bono, we'll match you with two law students and you can try to go get them to sell out and work at your firm. We left out some of those words--
--but you can guess which ones. And the law firms were pretty into it.
And then my best friend from undergrad, who was at New York University's school of law, which is not named after a Statler conference room, called me up, and she was like, how do we start doing what you're doing here? And then we heard from some students at Berkeley, who I never met and I still don't know how they heard about what we were doing.
And I, in addition to being really impatient, am really obsessed with efficiency for similarly morbid reasons. So I was not about starting a new organization. That to me seemed like the epitome of wild inefficiency. It seemed obvious that if hundreds of thousands of refugees per year were going through this legal process upon which their lives depended that someone had suggested that perhaps they ought to have legal aid.
So I spent the first year just calling around trying to find some Non-Governmental Organization-- or NGO, as we call it in the biz-- who was providing legal aid for refugees who we could just volunteer for. And by the summer between my second and third year, I was pretty sure that none existed.
And then it was solidified. I was interning that summer for the immigration unit at the New York Legal Aid Society working on special immigrant juvenile petitions, which then led to my brief job with Professor [INAUDIBLE], who's in the audience updating his immigration treatise on special immigrant juvenile petitions.
And I'm sitting in this crappy cubicle one day. And you know how every field has its subculture of celebrities? I'm sure whatever you're studying there's some academic who's the head of that field who no one except you and like seven people have ever heard of, but if you met her it would be a really big deal.
So in the world of refugees there's this guy named Vince Cochetel, who did a TED talk that everyone should go watch. He was held hostage in Chechnya for like 180 days in 1998. And he did a TED talk that's basically what do you do inside your head when you're being held hostage to keep yourself going. And it is completely fascinating-- Cochetel, C-O-C-H-E-T-E-L.
And Vince Cochetel at the time was the head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office for North America. And he called me on my cell phone, which I don't know how he got the number, although I have suspicions. And he was like, Hi, this is Vince Cochetel. And I'm like, oh my god, he's calling me.
And he was like, I heard that you and some of the other students are working on appeals for refugees who have been rejected. The case I told you about, his name was Bashar. One of the first cases we did was an appeal.
And I was like, we are. And he said, UNHCR has a number of cases that they've referred to the US that the US has rejected, and we think that they've been rejected unfairly. Would you be willing to take on their appeals?
And I had this just completely schizophrenic moment of where on the one hand I was like, oh my gosh, Vince Cochetel is calling me to help with this. And then on the other hand, it was like, oh my gosh, Vince Cochetel is calling me to help with this? You have no one else to call, really?
And that was the moment when I was just like, I have to do this. I thought no one else was doing this, and now I have proof. Because if anyone else at all was doing this, Vince Cochetel would have called her.
So I applied for a couple of fellowships, and graduated somehow in May of 2010, and took the bar-- which in spite of endorsing you going to law school I wish on none of you-- and then started doing IRAP full time in September of 2010.
As of-- let's pick a random date-- November 7, 2016, IRAP had chapters at 29 law schools, including Cornell, which I believe is named after a conference room at the Statler Hotel. We're partnered with over 80 law firms. We're working with lawyers at nine multinational corporations. We've provided legal assistance to over 20,000 people. We've helped directly resettle 3,300 people.
And we've passed eight different pieces of federal legislation resulting in new rights or visas for 160,100. individuals. Two of those pieces of legislation were passed since January 20 of this year, which, for those of you keeping score at home, is exactly two more pieces of legislation than President Trump has passed in the same time period.
So we were feeling pretty good about how things were going.
It turns out when you run an organization a lot of your job is fundraising, which is terrible, which no one told me, but which you have to do. So I was trying to get money from someone in LA in 2013-- so the year before ISIS took Mosul. And it was one of these people who advises celebrities on how to give philanthropically. And she was like, you know, I like the work that you're doing, but don't you think Iraq is kind of passe? And I have no filter obviously, and so I couldn't help myself, and I was like, not if you're Iraqi.
But then in the summer of 2015 millions of refugees start washing up on the shore of Europe. And I think that that happened for a couple of reasons. One is that you cannot separate refugee policy from foreign policy. It is a part of any country's foreign policy.
And when the Syrian Civil War first erupted, it was in the midst of what everyone thought was an "Arab Spring" where Western leaders were really convinced that if left well-enough alone and/or secretly armed by the CIA, uprisings in the Middle East would lead transitions to democratic governments, which we all know that that turned out super well.
And the problem with taking a refugee is that taking in a refugee is a pretty explicit admission that the refugee will never be able to go home. So there was a huge foreign policy incentive for Europe and the US to essentially ignore the Syrian refugee crisis so long as it looked like Bashar Al-Assad might fall from power. Because were we to start taking in large numbers of Syrian refugees, that would be a very explicit admission that we didn't think that the rebels in Syria had any chance and we really wanted Assad to fall.
And Syrians caught on much faster than we did to the fact that he wasn't going anywhere. And I think by the summer of 2015 people who had been scraping by in Jordan, and in Lebanon, and Turkey realized that the international system had essentially failed them.
There's an amazing poem by a British Somali poet named Warsan Shire. And the first line is "no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark." But another line is "no one puts their child in a boat unless the water is safer than the land."
And I think that in the summer of 2015 people finally felt that going on-- and you can literally go to the souk in Istanbul and there's stores selling rafts now. There's spices and rafts, and snow globes and rafts.
And I think people had finally reached a point where they felt like they needed to take their lives into their own hands, and they couldn't wait for this crazy, cantankerous, outdated system anymore and they needed to flee. So for a year refugees were the "hit" cause. Everyone was talking about Syrian refugees, suddenly the issue wasn't passe any more.
Then, conveniently when I was on maternity leave, the Paris bombings happened. They were not committed by refugees, but the Islamic State was smart enough that they planted fake passports implying that the perpetrators of the bombings were refugees, which then led to what I would argue was a global xenophobic politicization of refugees that fueled the rise of the alt-right. I think if you look at Donald Trump's Muslim ban you can trace that from his comments after the Paris bombing when he said we would be safer if we didn't let any Syrian refugees into the United States.
And I think that refugees have always been a political issue to some extent. If you look at the history of refugee admissions to the US, it really started with us taking in large numbers of people fleeing the Soviet Union because we wanted to encourage dissidents.
But I think that the demonization of refugees, and somehow linking refugees as a cause to the lack of jobs in the Rust Belt, is completely insane, and unfounded in any data, and frankly really tragic. Because I think that if we're really serious about fighting folks like the Islamic State, probably a good way to do that is to help the people who they're persecuting. And when Bashar Al-Assad drops chemical weapons on his own people, maybe our response shouldn't just be to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at the same group of people but to give them safe passage to resettle into our country.
So when Trump was elected, we realized that the fundamental-- and I think this is probably true of anyone in any sector, for better or for worse, but we realized that the fundamental nature of our work was about to really significantly shift, where we were going to go from arguing that the refugee process should be improved, and working with the government to find technical ways to make things more efficient, to defending the very existence of a refugee system or refugee admissions at all.
And I spent a lot of time between November and January thinking, OK, I got into this war mentality-- bunker mentality I guess is what it's actually called-- that I'm still in where I was like, I have this army of a couple thousand law students and lawyers who want to fight for the rights of refugees, what are the ways that I can deploy them. And the President very kindly gave me an answer right away.
So he was inaugurated on January 20, which was a Friday. He took the weekend off to go golfing. On Monday, a version of the travel ban was leaked to me. It was literally a photograph that someone had taken of the text of the executive order on a monitor of a computer. And it did all the things that he had promised that it was going to do. And nobody knew which of the lovely things he had said he would do through executive fiat was going to happen first. And then it became really obvious that it was going to be the Muslim ban.
So we called every client we had who had valid travel and we said, get on a plane, get on a plane right now, the doors to the US are closing. We fundraised the money for all of their plane tickets from different law firms and individual donors. And we said, come right now.
And on Wednesday was when John Kelly was sworn in as DHS Secretary-- Department of Homeland Security Secretary. And the rumor was that the travel ban was going to be announced as celebration of his swearing in.
And that day we had a transgender client arriving in LA. And we'll call her Katie. And when we have transgender clients, I always worry about their travel because their documents don't match their identity. It's a different name, it's a different gender, it could be a different bunch of other things.
Usually you worry about that with exit permits, like what's going to happen when this person tries to exit Saudi Arabia. But this time I was like, Customs and Border Protection is going to be looking for any excuse to detain people. What's going to happen when Katie lands at LAX with a passport saying that she's [? Mohamed? ?]
So we sent a lawyer to wait for her in the arrivals lounge to make sure that nothing happens. And, thankfully, nothing did. And that night I was Gchatting-- because I'm old-- with my policy director Betsy, and she was like, thank goodness the travel ban didn't come down today. I was like, oh, you mean because Katie was able to get in? And Betsy said, yeah, and the other 50 refugees who were on that plane, because they fly them all in groups.
And I had this moment of, oh my god, at any given time whenever this thing is signed, there's going to be thousands of people-- not just refugees-- in the sky who had legal permission to enter the US when they took off but are going to land as undocumented aliens, and no one knows what on earth is going to happen to them.
So we emailed this army of lawyers and law students, and we were like, can people please sign up for shifts to go to the airport? Here's a Google Doc. Tell us what day you can go and what airport you're near. And within 45 minutes, we had 1,600 people sign up and the Google Doc had crashed.
And that Friday-- the travel ban was signed at 4:30 on Friday, January 27-- there was a rumor that there was going to be some kind of grace period where people who already had visas would be permitted to come in. We had a bunch of clients who were coming in that day. We had law students waiting for them.
One client's name was Hameed Darweesh. He had worked as an interpreter for the US military in Iraq for more than 10 years. When you work on a forward operating base and you're not a US soldier, you have to get military grade level intelligence checked every six months, which means that Hameed had been through 21 different military level security checks prior to his attempt to enter the US. He had been shot at because of his work with the US military. And when he landed at JFK with his wife and kid, they were let out and he was shackled, and handcuffed, and put in a cell.
And his wife and kid told us what had happened. And I called a friend of mine at the National Immigration Law Center and I said, one of our clients has been detained. His wife and kids say there's 40 other people detained with him. What do we do? And he said, well, we have to file a habeas petition.
And this is really important. I wasted three minutes on Carol Channing's CNN show talking about this and they didn't invite me back, but I actually think it's worth your time to understand the writ of habeas corpus, because it's the most important right that you have, which can essentially be summed up as the government cannot hold you in a black hole without giving you any access to a trial or any sort of due process of law.
It's the reason why even people at Guantanamo get trials. It's the reason why you have a right to a speedy trial and this kid shouldn't have been in jail for a year and a half. And it's the reason why it was illegal for the Customs and Border Protection Agency to turn all the airports into black sites the weekend that the first travel ban happened.
So we got back in touch with Mike Wishnie, who you may remember from earlier in the story, and we stayed up all night, and we drafted a nationwide class action habeas petition, which is a crazy thing to do because it looks a lot like a jailbreak. And we filed it at 5:30 in the morning, because we wanted to make sure that it was on file with the court before any international flights could depart so that no one could be deported.
And we got a hearing for that night in Brooklyn at 7:30 PM, and it was argued by Lee Gelernt from the Immigrants' Rights Project at the ACLU. And at 8:30 PM we won. And they released what later turned out to be 2,100 people from airports all over the country. So it took us 29 hours from the signing of the travel ban to get all 2,000 people who were detained at the airports released.
And by the time the second travel ban came along, we didn't want to wait that long, so we filed before it went into effect. And that case went up to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court dismissed the case last week as moot when the president issued a third travel ban proclamation, which we sued again over.
And we were in court on Monday doing that. And at 1 o'clock this morning, a 91-page decision was issued. The case is called International Refugee Assistance Project v Trump, which I think might end up being on my gravestone. And we won. So--
So the latest version of the Muslim ban has now also been enjoined. Oh, I'm almost out of time.
A couple interesting things for me have come out of this. I was talking to a reporter from NPR today in-between a series of meetings. And he was like, my editors won't run a story on this. They say they have travel ban fatigue.
And I think that one thing that this administration-- yeah, one thing that this administration-- is good at is distracting us with shiny objects. The headline news story today is an-- admittedly minutely really offensive but non-policy-making-- offhanded comment that Trump made to a Gold Star mother. And yet, a travel ban that would affect millions of Americans can't seem to get significant coverage because it's the third time that it's happened.
And when the president was elected, the advice that everyone got is don't let this become normal, never let this become normal. And I think that when we allow ourselves to be distracted by this dog and pony show that's constantly happening, and when real news can't get any salience, that in and of itself is a form of normalizing this type of behavior.
And the NPR reporter was actually like, well, what can I tell my editor? He just thinks that this isn't newsworthy to a lot of our audience. And I said, tell him he's discriminating against the Muslim-American portion of his audience and that NPR is better than that. So we'll see if there's a story tomorrow. You heard it here first.
Then the New York Times ran a story. So I sent that link and I was like, the New York Times thinks it's news.
But I think that-- along with Syrian refugees-- we have a tendency to focus on the issues that are right in front of us and that are really flashy.
I don't know if you guys were alive when George W. Bush was president. I spent eight years just being incredibly angry. And one of the things-- of the many things-- that made me sad when Donald Trump was elected was just, oh my god, I cannot spend another four years just being completely outraged all the time. For one thing, it's a really unpleasant emotion to experience. For another, I have a kid now, I don't want her to be with me that way. How can I be in a fighting mindset without constantly feeling angry and ferocious?
So in my head I've made it a game where I'm just trying to outwit him. And I'm really competitive, so that works well for me.
But I think the other thing I think about is that all this crazy stuff is going to happen. And I care about a lot of issues, as I'm sure that you do. There are single issue organizations, but there's no such thing really a single issue person. You probably care about a myriad of things, and you're getting a liberal arts education and that's exploiting the fact that you care about a myriad of things, which is mostly good for you.
And as a lawyer, I think one of the most dangerous things that has happened since the Trump presidency was Jeff Sessions becoming Attorney General. And I did not get involved in fighting that, because I spent three months being like, you are refugees. There will be so much work to be done, and if you get distracted every time a new thing crops up, no one will be working on refugees. That is you.
So I get asked the question a lot, what can I do to help? And I don't have a perfect answer. But I think that the best answer I can give you-- and going back to the theme of this lecture-- is pick something that you really care a lot about and just stick with it.
It doesn't have to be refugees. It could be anything you want. It could be something that is completely on the wrong side of the political spectrum from everything I believe in. If you don't ever tell me, I'll never judge you.
But just pick something that you really care about, find a way to get involved that is meaningful to you. If you like to write, write about it. If you like to speak, speak about it. If you like to organize stuff at student activities fairs, go to different college campuses and organize people.
You will be shocked at what you have to give simply by focusing on something and giving your time to it. And then, just for the love of god, do not get distracted by shiny objects. Just pick a lane, and get in it, and drive as fast as you can, and let's all try to get through the next four years together.
A thing that I didn't realize about airport weekend. So I was up all night helping file this habeas petition. I didn't actually get to JFK until noon on Saturday. And I didn't know that there were protests. I knew that we had gotten a lot of lawyers there, and I had a spreadsheet of how many lawyers were allegedly at which airport, but I had no idea that 100,000 or however many people had shown up at airports all over the country to protest until I got to JFK and couldn't find anyone on my staff. And it was really amazing, because they were standing outside JFK with these signs and they were chanting, let them in, let them in.
And I am Jewish, which I mentioned earlier. And I lost family in the Holocaust. And I think a lot about this ship, the St. Louis, which a lot of you have probably heard of, which is a ship that was carrying Jewish refugees from Europe that tried to come to the United States. And it went from port, to port, to port and no one would let them dock. And eventually it turned around and went back to Europe. And they've actually traced the fate of a lot of the people on the St. Louis, and most of them ended up dying in concentration camps.
And I think about that. And I think, what if at every single port that the St. Louis had docked at there were 5,000 Americans standing there chanting, let them in, let them in? Maybe history would have been a little bit different.
I want to close with a quote from the great scholar Dr. Seuss, who failed out of my Alma mater, which there is a conference room in the Statler named after, which is, "unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." Thank you.
It might not be on.
CHRIS WILDEMAN: So we have about five minutes for questions. So if you have a question, come down either to this mic or to the mic that [? Carrie ?] is about to put over there. Since we don't have much time, please keep it to a question-- you know what I mean.
So come on up.
REBECCA HELLER: Looks like none of them has any questions. We've solved all of it.
CHRIS WILDEMAN: I think they know that there's dessert outside.
REBECCA HELLER: One of your questions could be, what's for dessert?
Well, they'd have to go outside and look. You could just call it out, probably.
REBECCA HELLER: You cannot call it out.
AUDIENCE: In your opinion, what might happen with the latest challenge to the [INAUDIBLE].
REBECCA HELLER: In my opinion, we will win in the Fourth Circuit and the Ninth Circuits and then the Supreme Court will actually be forced to decide, because this particular travel ban is indefinite, so they won't be able to wait 90 days and then be like, oh, it's over, it's dismissed. And I hesitate to speculate on what the Supreme Court will do, but I hope that it's the right thing.
AUDIENCE: I was hoping a student would get up and ask a question. I'm not one, unfortunately. Can you tell us what it's been like? Are you working with any Iraqi lawyers as well, or are you--
REBECCA HELLER: We work with a couple.
AUDIENCE: And are you working with lawyers in other communities to take people in in other countries as well, or--
REBECCA HELLER: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: --is it all in the US?
REBECCA HELLER: Yeah, no, we've resettled people to 15 different countries. And we're looking a lot right now at what we're calling "alternative pathways," which is that given that the US is taking a historically low number of refugees this year, what are other ways that people can get to safety. And we're partnering with a bunch of European countries on that, because it turns out that forced migration is a global issue, contrary to current political belief. I'm trying to answer quickly, also.
AUDIENCE: Hi, my name's [? Haley. ?] And I wanted to know, as somebody who's fighting for social justice, how do you balance getting people to care, when it's very much in our interest as human beings to care about an issue like this, and getting policymakers to care, whose agendas are just so different than what any individual citizen can imagine? How do you balance those two?
REBECCA HELLER: You talk to them really differently. I've found that with policymakers-- well, first of all, right now I think no policymaker will listen to anything. We're just in a really weird political situation that I think is somewhat unprecedented. Prior to this administration, I would say openly I'm not interested in public awareness campaigns. I think we're small and we'll leave that to the International Rescue Committee, which has the resources to do something like launch a big public awareness campaign.
What I think the most helpful thing is when you meet with policymakers is to bring a list of examples. So for us, we would go meet with the State Department and we would say-- well, we phrase it nicer, but-- this is a dumb policy, it's messing up the lives of a lot of these people. And they'd say, do you have any examples? And we'd say, yes, here are 40 examples.
And that's helpful for two reasons. One is that it shows that you've done your homework and you know what you're talking about. And it demonstrates that it's really a problem, so they can't deny it. But two, it means that like whatever high-level person you're meeting with at State is now actually taking a look at these 40 cases that were previously stuck in the system and it's going to unstick them.
And I think also, contrary to what I did for the last 45 minutes, when you're meeting with policymakers you want to be really brief and assume that they don't know anything. Because they're meeting with 50 other people that day, and they're giving each of them 15 minutes, and they're going to forget. Leave them with a 1-pager and an ask that you can follow up on, a really easy ask like signing a letter that you write for them.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
Hi. I'm still not quite sure how I'm phrasing this question. But the travel ban is meant to be about changing the way refugees are vetted before coming into this country, although we also know that refugees go through intense vetting and serious security interviews across all agencies. So there's this dichotomy of what is actually true and what everybody's talking about. And I think that spans the spectrum of what's going on politically. How do you see us dealing with that nobody's listening to the actual truth of it all?
REBECCA HELLER: It sucks.
REBECCA HELLER: One move that we've been trying to make is engaging nontraditional communities in refugee advocacy. I think that the argument for letting refugees in historically has been they're victims, poor refugees, we should help them. And so we've been working really hard to partner with veterans groups and national security groups to say, hey, there are actually really important national security considerations in bringing in refugees. These are issues that also affect men and women who have served in wars.
I think there's a lot of really cool grassroots organizing going on at churches and religious groups. So I think part of the goal will be like bringing nontraditional allies into the fight, and part of it will just be trying to stick it out in a really crappy environment.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
REBECCA HELLER: This is apparently the last question, but I'll be outside with dessert.
AUDIENCE: I was just wondering if you've ever found it too hard or too rough to have to deal and listen to all these cases?
REBECCA HELLER: Yeah, every day. I have a really good therapist. She prescribes me good medication.
Everyone should seek professional help when they need it.
And I think the tough thing is you want to find a balance between being engaged enough with people's individual stories that your empathy can continue to drive your work, because that's really what prevents burnout, but not becoming so engaged that you get emotionally overwhelmed and you can't get up and do your job in the morning. And I don't know exactly where that line is, but I try to just be very self-aware and engage in what we call like self-care activities, which now that I have a child is completely impossible. So don't have children is my main advice.
But I think you can't push yourself beyond where you can go. So I think you need to know that if you're hitting burnout it's time to take a vacation and that that's not a selfish thing to do, that if you don't take a vacation you can't keep doing your job. So whatever things you do to make yourself feel better after experiencing what we call vicarious trauma or direct trauma, doing those things has to be a part of your job. It's part of fighting for the cause to take care of yourself so that you can get up tomorrow and keep fighting for the cause.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
REBECCA HELLER: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: Last question. What can non-law students-- i.e., undergrads at Cornell and other places for which conference rooms at Statler are named-- do to help your organization?
REBECCA HELLER: Refugees are resettled all over the US. I heard a lot of people talk about doing volunteer work in Buffalo. There's actually a pretty enormous refugee population in Buffalo. You can volunteer with local resettlement agencies.
Refugees need help with a lot of things that you might not think of just because we do things differently here, like opening a bank account and learning how to drive-- although I sat with a very educated, smart woman at dinner who didn't know how to drive; you know who you are, but you promised you'd learn before you graduated, and you have seven months.
So I think figure out who your local refugee resettlement agency is and volunteer. You could organize awareness events on campus. Getting to the theme of how do we make people aware of this issue, you can have people come and speak. I think you should have-- rather than people like me, have refugees come and speak, and hear their own stories, and organize panels.
If you speak Arabic or Somali, you're welcome to volunteer with IRAP. Otherwise, there's usually a ton of volunteer opportunities with local churches and with the International Rescue Committee. You can publish op-eds. You can call your legislators.
On our website you can sign up for action alerts, which are just things that tell you when something's happening, and you should call someone, and who you should call. They don't ask you for money or anything, so you can sign up for those. It's refugeerights.org.
And I think-- going back to what I talked about earlier-- if nothing else, just pay attention. Because if we go to war with North Korea tomorrow, there's still going to be a whole bunch of Syrian refugees.
So I think if it's an issue you really care about, just keep, put up-- I have a bunch of Google Alerts for various permutations of refugee and the nationalities that we work with. Just set up a Google Alert so that you get an archived reminder every day of how this is affecting millions of people in spite of all of the shiny objects flying at your head constantly.
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Becca Heller, co-founder and director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, discussed how advocates can fight for the rights of refugees against the waves of right-wing populist xenophobia sweeping through the U.S. and Europe, Oct. 18, 2017 during the Iscol Family Program for Leadership Development in Public Service Lecture.
What obstacles do Syrian and other refugees face in attempting to seek safe passage? How has the politicization of refugees conflated mass migration with terrorist infiltration? And how are a group of lawyers and law students fighting back?
Heller is a Visiting Clinical Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School. She graduated from Yale Law School in 2010 and received her B.A. from Dartmouth College. She founded and directs the International Refugee Assistance Project formerly the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project at Yale Law School, an organization that assists refugees in applying for resettlement from abroad and adjusting to life in the United States.