Melissa Trent is a 27-year-old attorney in New York City. After learning about President Trump’s executive order banning entry into the U.S. for people from seven Muslim-majority countries, she volunteered to fight back in the best way she knew how: using her legal expertise to help individuals detained at Kennedy International Airport, commonly known as JFK. Since then, as we learned from our interview with her, she has continued working with the individuals and families she met there and plans to continue showing up however she can. Here’s her take on the ban, youth activism, and how we forge ahead.
Generation Progress (GP): Where does your passion for social justice root from? And what were your personal motivations for getting involved in the JFK resistance?
Melissa Trent (MT): A friend of mine had shared with me that the International Refugee Assistance Project was seeking attorneys who might be willing to get involved at JFK if there was an issue after the executive order. So, I had signed up for that and was at a training when I got an email saying they needed attorneys now and people were being detained. I’m a big believer in the protection of rights for everyone in this country, and I had been at the Women’s March the weekend before—with people of all faiths and colors and orientations and everything. So then, just one week later, to be sitting in an airport where people were being detained without due process and weren’t being allowed to talk to their lawyers, was really frightening to me and really upsetting and kind of affront to all the values I hold, as a lawyer and as an American, around justice and respect. I think that was the motivation of a lot of lawyers who volunteered there last weekend, and their motivation for continuously being there. We really believe in this country’s protection, and to see them violate it is really upsetting.
GP: What did your experience on the ground look like with the individuals impacted by the travel ban and their families?
MT: Well, I worked with other lawyers to file a habeas corpus petition—those are basically requests for the government to explain why they are holding somebody. We worked with lawyers at the ACLU to help them know what was happening on the ground. So, as they were arguing in court and filing motions, they could use our first-hand experiences. And I worked with other lawyers to advocate for family members who were waiting to see their loved ones, and we did a lot of, sort of, formal advocacy calling airports, calling the border patrol agents—demanding that we get to speak to clients and that they be released. It was a very long waiting day. For several of the families I worked with, it took over 24 hours before their loved ones were released.
GP: What days were you actively on-site at JFK?
MT: I was there on Saturday afternoon, and left about Sunday night. So, I was there for a total of about 30 hours.
GP: Youth activism is extremely important, and young people are on the frontlines of pushing for social change. What types of youth activism/involvement have you witnessed, and what are additional ways you would encourage young people to resist polices they disagree with, like this travel ban?
MT: I definitely saw youth activism. In particular, at JFK, we were sitting there late on Saturday night, and some young people who were students had been protesting. They were from Egypt and from other countries, and they realized they might be able to be helpful in another way. So, not only had they started the day off by protesting this executive order, but then when they had skills that could be really useful to help work on this problem, they came in and worked as interpreters for us, which was really powerful. I think that youth activism is going to be really crucial in the coming years under Trump, and showing that young people are engaged—whether making calls, sending postcards, showing up to protests, volunteering about the causes they care about—truly shows that we care, we’re going to show up, we’re going to vote, and we’re not going to just sit around while things change.
GP: What is one message you want people to know that may be getting lost in the narrative?
MT: I think that it is really easy to get pulled into all the doom and gloom, and a lot of us are facing fatigue around everything that is happening, and sort of this dismay. I think that it’s easy to lose track of the wins that we are getting. With the stay on the travel ban and the halt that came from the judge in Seattle—we’re getting victories, both in the courts and around organizing. Two Republican senators have now said that they are going to vote against Betsy DeVos [Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, who was confirmed with an unprecedented tie-breaking vote from the Vice President]. This is all because of, and started with, on the ground direct action. While we move forward, and while we address really serious challenges, we should really keep an eye on our wins and celebrate those.
GP: Trump has ordered this ban in the name of protecting and strengthening America and this country’s borders. However, many policy experts predict that conversely this ban will put U.S. troops and intelligence agents in danger, while provoking extremism abroad. How have you seen this dangerous rhetoric play out to debilitate America?
MT: I was really amazed by the families and the detainees that I met at JFK. It was really clear to me at that point that this rhetoric about protecting America was not the real reason. Some of the clients I worked with were elderly and even in wheelchairs. One woman was in a wheelchair and was kept for almost 24 hours. Another one of the clients I worked with was a Ph.D. student. And I sat with her friends, one of whom was getting a Ph.D. in Biological Engineering. We’re talking about family members and grandmothers in wheelchairs and students and really people that just make our country great in a variety of ways. To see them kept away from their schools, their homes, and their loved ones was really devastating and I think that puts us at risk because it reinforces the terrible things that are said about America not being friendly to the Islamic faith or Muslims. I think that the idea that people who were coming in that day were dangerous is just ridiculous. There was no factual basis for that assumption.
GP: What are your next steps?
MT: Personally, I’m still in contact with a lot of the family members and detainees I worked with at JFK. Their cases aren’t necessarily over, or they still have concerns or have family members that are abroad. So I’m still, on a personal level, working with them.
I think we need to really listen to communities, and when they say that they need help, try to show up in every way that we can—whether it’s to provide legal services or interpretations, or protest, or call our senators. I’m going to try to keep listening to what communities, and their organizers, are asking for.