On March 16, Trump's revised travel ban was supposed to go into effect, but federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland blocked it from moving forward. The new document, currently on hold, uses more precise language and accounts for many of the special cases, but the substance of the order still is largely the same, and six Muslim-majority countries are subject to a 90-day ban on travel to the United States. In light of the new challenge, Trump has vowed to revert to the initial, even more punitive ban (good luck getting that one through the courts).
The weekend after Trump's first travel ban was issued, I spent the entire Sunday camped out at San Francisco International Airport (SFO). I'm a lawyer, so I had signed up through the International Refugee Assistance Project to be a volunteer coordinator for the other lawyers coming out to help defend some of the nearly 90,000 travelers who were targeted and affected by the ban.
As a Bay Area native, I had gone through the international terminal several times, and it usually felt tranquil and quiet. But on that Sunday, every floor was full of protesters and volunteers. They were busy, and they were making noise. At a certain point, SFO staff appeared to have left the terminal — we had seemingly "occupied" the airport. For the lawyers who came to volunteer, though, it wasn't an occupation so much as it was a serious legal-services operation.
In the middle of the day I was sitting on the ground in our "war room" corner of the terminal, with several of us huddled together, furiously coordinating efforts on our laptops and phones. Because I didn't have time to waste leaving that area, I was using my jacket for cover while I pumped. (I have a baby, and I was still breastfeeding, and you gotta do what you gotta do!) Clearly I have a liberal view about these things, but in that moment, I felt especially comfortable. It took me a while to appreciate that it was because there were women everywhere.
When I got home that evening, I realized that nearly every single lawyer with whom I had worked that day — even people like immigrant-rights staff attorneys at the ACLU who couldn't physically be there, but with whom I had spent significant time speaking on the phone — was a woman. It turns out SFO wasn't the only place where this gender disparity was apparent; it was happening all over the country.
I recently watched Eva Longoria speak at the MAKERS Conference, and she said something that stuck with me because it reminded me of my mother and grandmother. Eva described her mother as raising her with a motto of "Figure it out." You need extra money? Figure it out. You want someone to cook you a meal? Figure it out. At the heart of her message is that women are resourceful, and they are problem solvers: they show up, they roll up their sleeves. And they figure it out.
The airports are just one example of the ways in which women are on the front lines fighting this administration in a meaningful, ongoing way. What follows are two similar but separate interviews I conducted and combined. They are with women who spend their daily lives finding creative solutions for communities that need it most. Julia Wilson is a lawyer who led efforts following the travel ban at SFO through her role as CEO of OneJustice, and Julie Chavez Rodriguez was at LAX as a representative of Senator Kamala Harris's office*, where Julie is state director.
Meena Harris: There's been some interesting discussion about whether immigration law, as a legal-services field, leans more female. But I'm taking a broader perspective, looking at the airports and the two judges who issued the first orders in response to the Muslim ban, as well as women like [fired deputy attorney general] Sally Yates and Senator Elizabeth Warren, who are taking a stand in the face of bullying and attempts by the administration to silence them. On a lighter note, we have Melissa McCarthy doing her thing, while also apparently giving the White House heartburn. Basically, I see strong, talented women coming out and standing up. You were leading assistance efforts at both SFO and LAX, and I'm curious what your observations have been and how you might fit this into a larger picture of how women are fighting the fight, moving us forward, and giving this administration hell?
Julia Wilson: I guess I didn't notice it specifically there, but when I think back through it, all of the volunteers at the airports were tons of women. There were serious women lawyers showing up, sort of saying, "This is what I do." Last night [February 7, 2017], there was a woman who had just become a lawyer, she just graduated from law school, and she was there not in her legal capacity but as a flight tracker, and I heard her talking to one of the experienced immigration lawyers who also was a woman. They had this whole conversation about being a woman, and choosing the law, and what that means. Part of why she volunteered last night was to be able to see women lawyers doing their thing. I just had this moment like, "Oh, right this is an airport legal-clinic resistance women's-movement thing."
Julie Chavez Rodriguez: There were maybe a few male lawyers, but it was overwhelming — both for lawyers as well as folks that came to serve as translators — how leadership was coordinated by young, women lawyers. Also, to see that kind of pop-up operation happen in a matter of twelve hours, which I've heard from the legal-services community usually can take months to coordinate, was unprecedented. I think it is a strong testament to what I've observed among women leaders, which is an ability to coordinate quickly and get shit done. Women put ego aside to figure out how to stand up, whether it's building an entire operation or tackling a discrete problem. That was exhibited throughout my experience on the ground at LAX. The other thing that was remarkable was seeing the combination of protest and activism, and real public demonstration, coupled with the extremely impactful legal-services operation, which was a strong and coordinated effort.
Also, whether those women were from any of the Muslim-majority countries singled out by the ban, or self-identify as an immigrant or as a refugee, they came to it from a place of "This is an assault on our families and on our communities." That created a strong sense of solidarity among everyone.
Women put ego aside to figure out how to stand up, whether it's building an entire operation or tackling a discrete problem.
JW: There has been this tremendous feminization of legal-services civil-rights work. In fact, in 2009, the Legal Aid Association of California did a retention recruitment study, and they drew the conclusion that as the legal-aid world has become increasingly feminized, it's been part of what's driven salaries down for legal-aid lawyers.
MH: Devastating, but not a surprise. We know that this area of law is female, but is there something bigger going on? I think about the Women's March, too, and there's of course much to unpack there in terms of intersectional feminism, and who we are really helping and listening to, etc. There's a lot happening, right?
JW: We tried to make some of the power and privilege stuff explicit. By the time things were not chaotic anymore, when we were doing the volunteer orientations, we had a system. We made the choice to at least introduce some of those ideas, about how we are a diverse group and the volunteer groups were also pretty diverse — we chose to be conscious together about who's showing up with historical power and privilege, and who isn't. There's something for me about the language, that this is a battle for language right now around immigration and refugees. The administration is clearly, purposefully using language that's about the criminalization and dehumanization of a set of people — it's sort of the weaponization of immigration. If you compare the current White House website to the way the Obama White House website treated immigration, there is no "immigration policy" section. And it's not even "law enforcement" or "public safety"; it's called "Protecting Police Officers."
It's so weaponized. Trump rarely says the word "refugees" — he calls refugees "illegal immigrants." Just consider, who is used to language being twisted? I think that is such a feminized experience: who owns language, who gets to use language, and who decides the way language is used against people. I was struck by that. There were a couple times that I said to people, "We've claimed this territory. This piece of the airport belongs to us. The CBP agents don't go to the Starbucks anymore because they don't want to walk by us."
MH: I don't know if it was for the protection of staff or what, but at like four o'clock — certainly not normal closing time for Starbucks — you couldn't find a single airport staff person at international arrivals. Not even at the Information desk — it was just piled with bottled water and crates of oranges that people had brought for protesters and volunteers to eat! We had taken over.
JW: Those are the sort of the threads in my head — women and language, and space, and who showed up, and who kept coming. I don't want to fall into stereotypes, but the other thing I was struck by after three days of being there was that it was all about families: families left behind, families not reunited, half of a family getting off a plane and leaving behind the other half in Germany because of mixed immigration status. Literally getting off the plane and saying, "We do not know when we will be reunited again, nor if we will ever reunite in the United States." It was so profound, like grandmothers trying to travel here to see their grandchildren born. It was so about families. Again, I don't want to fall into the trap of saying women are about family more than men, but there is something there.
Who owns language, who gets to use language, and who decides the way language is used against people.
MH: Speaking of language, Julie, I love Senator Harris's perspective: these are all women's issues. Immigration is a women's issue. She says, "You want to talk about women's issues? Let's talk about the economy." Let's talk about everything because, frankly, women make the world go round; they allow our country — and world — to thrive, if you actually look at the simple economics of it. For you, too, as a woman and the granddaughter of an immigrant activist, I imagine this is all special, and also difficult. I think the storytelling of people who have such close, personal connections to this was important.
JCR: There is so much responsibility in ensuring that Senator Harris's vision, her leadership, and the work that she's doing in DC is not happening in isolation from the day-to-day issues that Californians are facing. There's a responsibility that comes with her being the first black U.S. senator [from California], and the weight that comes with it in terms of expectations of her that are even beyond her own existence. I feel like she's carrying the weight of generations. I felt a lot of that responsibility working for President Obama, and making sure that all of us who worked in his White House had a deep understanding of what it meant. Senator Harris has said it best, that there really is a lot of power in the kind of organizing, and activism, and coalition-building that we're seeing across the state and across the country. It's contingent upon each of us, whether we're working in the U.S. Senate, providing legal services, or just as a member of the community, to feed that power in this moment.
MH: Julia, would you suggest, then, that it's our duty as women, especially now with us on the front lines, with us dominating the profession, to change the language?
JW: Yes. When we were talking to the media at the airports, we all had agreed that we weren't even so much as using the word "travelers" but instead "family members and loved ones." We needed to make a claim that set out in the media a different narrative than what President Trump was tweeting. Look, I'm a die-hard feminist, and I felt like there was something important about standing in front of a TV camera and saying, "I'm not going to be theoretical here, and I'm not going to be a lawyer. I'm not going to use law-speak — I'm going to talk about the family members and loved ones."
MH: Right, you want to be careful not to make this gendered. But it was a "fuck it" moment about recognizing the fact that still, predominantly women are caretakers, and you decided to embrace and reclaim that.
JW: Saying that is important. Using that language in this moment as a woman is actually a point of resistance with this administration. I'm a mother of two daughters, and I'm going to stand here and talk about how this is about family members and loved ones, because that's what's going on here.
Also, I'm a white woman, and so I try to check my privilege when I can and be good about my own bias. There was something awesome and so important about the fact that, by the time I showed up on the Monday [after the first Muslim-ban executive order came down], the women who were leading and the women from whom I was taking direction — and I've been in legal aid twenty years now, and I have a lot of privilege and power from being the CEO — they were these young, badass women of color.
It was more than that moment, and I just kept saying, "You direct, I follow." It's women of color, who are young, who are showing up. I will sit back and do what they tell me to do, because damn, we need them, and they're the right people to lead.
These interviews can be condensed and edited.
Meena Harris is the founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign. *She's also the niece of Senator Kamala Harris.