BY KRISTIN SCHULTZ
On Jan. 28, Sarah Tishler went to JFK airport in New York City.
But she didn’t arrive with a suitcase full of flip-flops and shorts; she wasn’t there to catch a flight. In the hours following President Trump’s travel ban, confusion and conflicting communication caused dozens of foreign travelers to be detained at the nation’s fifth busiest airport.
A call for lawyers — any type of lawyer — to go to JFK airport to assist stranded travelers went out on Twitter. The 2006 Niskayuna High School graduate immediately thought, “I’m a lawyer. I can help.”
Tishler emphasized that she is not a immigration law expert. After completing undergraduate work at Northeastern University in Boston and law school at Duke University and Sciences Po in Paris, France, she went to work for Shearman & Sterling in New York City specializing in securities litigation and international arbitration. She does, however, as part of her law firm’s pro bono work, take on immigration and asylum cases. Currently she is working with two clients.
“I became a lawyer by process of elimination,” she said. “I tried other things but kept thinking, ‘If I was a lawyer, I could argue this person’s case myself. I could help.’”
Tishler views her pro bono work with immigration cases as her contribution to the American dream.
“All my great-grandparents were immigrants,” she said. “I see it as my obligation to keep that dream alive for those who see the United States as the land of opportunity. Saying it out loud sounds corny, but I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution. I take that seriously.”
Last summer, Shearman & Sterling’s pro bono coordinator sent an email seeking French speakers to assist with an asylum case. Tishler is fluent and signed on. She has logged 60 hours since August and expects to spend a total of 300 to 400 hours on the case, which could stretch on for years.
“Right now the immigration courts are backlogged,” she said. “It’s likely my client’s merits hearing won’t happen for two years.”
Persons seeking asylum in the United States can request it immediately upon arrival or within one year of entry. After an interview, there is a master calendar hearing in front of an immigration judge, at which time the merits hearing is scheduled. In the time between the master calendar hearing and the merits hearing, the asylum seeker — better yet, the asylum seeker and his or her immigration attorney — must collect evidence supporting the claim, get witness statements from family and experts and fill out stacks of paperwork.
“People in immigration proceedings fare much better with representation,” said Tishler. “But there is no right to representation in immigration court.”
If asylum is granted, an immigrant can apply for a green card and then, after five years of legal permanent residency, apply for naturalization and citizenship.
If the long-established path to legal residency and citizenship is a “very slow, very frustrating” process, Tishler said, the hastily implemented executive order added an element of confusion and chaos.
While making her way to JFK, Tishler and her friend Yoni Grossman-Boder learned that a federal judge in the Eastern District Court of New York had granted an emergency stay. The ruling meant that people who had entered the United States with approved visas or refugee status must be allowed in. It also prevented Customs and Border Protection from deporting individuals who had arrived at airports or other ports of entry.
This was important. Under normal circumstances, if a noncitizen is deported, he or she cannot reenter the United States for between five and 20 years, and may even be permanently barred. In the mayhem following the executive order, being deported at the airport could result in long-term, if unintended, consequences.
“People could have been separated from their loved ones for years,” said Tishler. “It’s shocking and can be devastating. We were trying to prevent that from happening.”
The emergency stay provided temporary reprieve, but there was a catch: For CBP to halt deportation, they wanted a physical copy of the judge’s order delivered to the CBP supervisor. There were two problems. First, JFK is an airport, not an Office Max with printers and paper. The second problem was that no one appeared to know who was in charge or to whom the order should be delivered.
“If [CBP] has the order and they read it, they couldn’t put people on planes any more,” said Tishler. “[CBP’s] response was that they were aware of the order but hadn’t seen a copy. We needed to get a copy of the order to CBP in Terminal 4.”
Terminal 4 at JFK airport is the international arrivals and departures terminal, and was where most of the detainees were being held.
Tishler and Grossman-Boder found a baggage handler who gave them access to a printer. The pair printed a couple dozen copies and headed to Terminal 4 where they were rebuffed and told that CBP did not want a copy of the order. The reason CBP rejected the physical copy of the order is not clear. It is not unusual, however, for CBP to defer to directives handed down from the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., before taking a position on an issue.
The order was finally delivered with help and intervention from New York City’s Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, Nisha Agarwal.
Tishler and Grossman-Boder stayed at the airport for another three hours. They spoke with detainees’ family members, who were questioning what would happen next.
“The frustrating thing was not being able to give good answers,” said Tishler. “We genuinely had a lack of good answers.”
By the time Tishler and Grossman-Boder left the airport, all the detainees were receiving free legal services. She got home at 2:30 a.m.
Tishler continues to follow the legal wrangling over the executive order, listening to the live stream of oral arguments presented to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Feb. 7. She loves the “nerdy” stuff.
As the situation unfolds, Tishler will be ready to volunteer again if she can be of any help. She won’t be alone. An organized group of lawyers from private firms and immigration advocacy agencies is ready to act if necessary.
“I would absolutely respond again,” she said. “Our firm’s pro bono coordinator is putting together a group of attorneys to take on these kinds of cases. This is not unique to our firm. Other firms in the city are doing the same thing. For me, this touches on a fundamental American value and now that there is a demonstrated need, there is a huge amount of enthusiasm among attorneys to help.”
While Tishler’s enthusiasm for the law may be genetic (her father is Niskayuna-based lawyer Nicholas Tishler), she is quick to acknowledge her education in the Niskayuna school district, citing enduring friendships, her participation on the debate team and the influence of her AP World History teacher, Rosemary Hirota-Morris.
“Mrs. Hirota-Morris was hugely influential in my life and as a student,” said Tishler of the now-retired teacher. “She taught us to think critically about what we’ve been taught and what we heard in the news. Should we accept the basic version of events or was something more interesting happening underneath it?”
Tishler spent her final year of law school studying in Paris, thankful for her middle school and high school French-language teachers.
“I credit Niskayuna High School and Central School District for what I’ve been able to achieve,” she said. “The town and the district were a great place to grow up.”