TORONTO – While many Canadians gear up to celebrate the nation’s 150th birthday, hundreds of lawyers from coast to coast are prepared to devote their time to those banned from entering the country’s closest neighbour.
A coalition of legal volunteers are on standby to assist those impacted by the travel ban against residents of six majority Muslim countries.
U.S. President Donald Trump originally implemented the ban in January pleading national security concerns, but numerous U.S. courts placed injunctions on it pending further review.
Canadian lawyers mobilized to support those affected by the new restrictions back then, but put their efforts on hold as the ban worked its way through the American court system.
An interim decision by the U.S. Supreme Court put large parts of the ban back in place, prompting the Canadian Cross-Border Legal Coalition into action once again.
Coalition spokesman and practising lawyer Corey Shefman says helping those impacted by policies abroad feels like a uniquely Canadian activity.
“When push comes to shove, Canadians are willing to stand up for our values and to put themselves on the line,” Shefman said in a telephone interview.
The volunteers, he said, come from every part of the political spectrum.
“You wouldn’t find this group of lawyers at a political convention together, but on a basic issue like this, treating everyone with dignity, respect and equality, people come together.”
Shefman said the coalition first took shape in the hours following the announcement of the travel ban in January, which originally targeted seven countries with majority Muslim populations.
Trump, who made a tough approach to immigration a cornerstone of his election campaign, issued a ban on travellers from Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Iran and Yemen. Iraq was originally included in the policy but later dropped. Trump called them temporary measures needed to prevent terrorism until vetting procedures could be reviewed.
Opponents noted that visa and refugee vetting were already strict and said there was no evidence that refugees or citizens of those six countries posed a threat. They saw the ban as part of Trump’s campaign promise to bar Muslims from entering the United States.
The new rules were hastily implemented across the country, causing chaos at many American airports and resulting in many people being denied entry into the country.
Much of the confusion in January resulted from travellers with previously approved visas being kept off flights or barred entry on arrival in the U.S.
Shefman said Canadian lawyers, catching wind of the turmoil south of the border, quickly mobilized to help out.
He himself fielded many calls from people stranded at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport — one of about 400 lawyers in that city alone to volunteer their services to help resolve issues brought about by the ban.
Lawyers were active in the U.S. as well, bringing the issue before courts across the country in a bid to put a stop to the ban.
Lower courts eventually blocked the initial ban and a second, revised Trump order intended to overcome legal hurdles.
On Monday, however, the Supreme Court partially reinstated the revised ban but exempted travellers who could prove a “bona fide relationship” with a U.S. person or entity.
In guidance issued late Wednesday, the State Department said the personal relationships would include a parent, spouse, son, daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law or sibling already in the United States. It does not include other relationships such as grandparents, grandchildren, aunts and uncles.
On Thursday, the State and Homeland Security departments had both expanded the range of bona fide relationships to include fiancés.
Business or professional links must be “formal, documented and formed in the ordinary course rather than for the purpose of evading” the ban. Journalists, students, workers or lecturers who have valid invitations or employment contracts in the U.S. would be exempt from the ban.
Shefman said the issue of bona fide relationships is the one Canadian lawyers are expecting to hear about most often in the coming days.
He said lawyers dispatched to all of Canada’s international airports have reported a relatively calm and orderly scene since the reinstated ban took effect at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday.
Shefman attributed the calmer pace to the combination of more lenient measures and would-be travellers staying home for fear of religious profiling.
He said lawyers not posted at airports are helping by doing research on issues such as the way the U.S. ban interacts with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Across the board, however, he said the Canadian legal volunteers are hearing a consistent message from those they’ve worked with.
“They’re being approached by travellers who are just thanking them, who are saying to them, ‘thank you for what you’re doing, it means a lot.'”
— With files from the Associated Press