Two Years Ago, This Immigration Lawyer Marched on an Airport. Today, He’s Running for State House.

“I walked into Dulles that night as a lawyer, but I walked out as an advocate,” says Hassan Ahmad.

Hassan Ahmad in his law firm in McLean, VirginiaKanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn/Mother Jones

The day after President Donald Trump announced his travel ban two years ago, on January 28, 2017, Hassan Ahmad headed to Dulles International Airport in Virginia hoping to help. A local immigration lawyer, Ahmad says he felt like he had to be there: Not only did he understand immigration law, he was Muslim, just like the men and women targeted by Trump’s policy. He says that though he had read the text of the executive order before he arrived, nothing could have prepared him for the chaos of that night. Hundreds of people showed up to protest the ban, as did a slew of other immigration lawyers. And despite pressure from elected officials, Customs and Border Protection officers continually refused to speak to anyone. 

“It became clear that zero thought had gone into [the implementation of the order]. Nobody knew what to do,” Ahmad says now. “It was mass confusion.”

That night, he says, “shifted the direction of my entire practice.” He was disturbed to see just how much immigration policies were becoming politicized under the Trump administration, and realized that advocacy would be a necessary part of his work. He joined the Virginia Asian Advisory Board, a state board representing the interests of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, and the Commonwealth Commission on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which investigates discrimination and promotes inclusive laws.

“If you see where the policies are coming from and where the system itself is unforgiving or robs the client of the opportunity to tell their story,” he says, “then why is it not part of a baseline representation to advocate for change? You have to represent your clients’ best interests, but you should also be advocating to change the policies.”

Now, two years after he first went to the airport, Ahmad is taking his work a step further and running as a Democrat to represent Virginia’s District 87 in the House of Delegates. Mother Jones spoke with him about how the airport protests changed his career, why he’s obsessed with exposing white nationalism at the highest levels of government, and the future of the travel ban on its anniversary. When I visited his office in McLean, Virginia, I noticed a small banner in the corner, with the fitting words: “Hate has no place here.”

Mother Jones: Why don’t we start by talking about the night that changed things—right after the travel ban was announced.

Hassan Ahmad: I live 10 minutes from Dulles Airport, and signed up for a [volunteer] shift [offering legal services] that night. I figured hey, I represent clients, I know some officers at the deferred inspection unit…maybe some of my local knowledge would be beneficial. Let me go see what I can do.

This was the same day two Yemeni brothers had been turned away [at the airport and denied entry into the United States]. Since they were residents of Virginia, the governor and the state attorney general were at the airport. What struck me was the fact that they tried to get back there to talk to CBP about the residents, and they couldn’t get through. That was the first inclination I had that, okay, something is very wrong here. This is going to be very different.

As the crowd started to grow, lawyers started showing up and the international arrivals hall turned into a functional law firm. There were lawyers sitting there doing research on their laptops, people were bringing power strips and printers, and lawyers were interviewing people. The American Civil Liberties Union had filed a lawsuit in New York that led to a nationwide injunction of the ban, but there was a lawsuit here in Virginia, too. The judge signed an order saying that the detained permanent residents must be allowed to meet with the volunteer lawyers at Dulles. We printed off the order and shoved it in [CPB officers’] faces and said, “Hey, you got to open the doors and let us go in.” And they said no.

That was a seminal moment for me. I’ve been to supermax prisons before and I have never been denied access to my client. Sometimes they’ll say, “Oh, you can’t come in right now, things are shut down,” but I’ve never been told, “No, you cannot meet with your client”—15 years of practice, that’s never happened. Once the crowd found out about it, they started yelling, you know, “Let them see their lawyers” and “Due process.” That’s something I’m never going to forget.

As lawyers, we were always trained to think, okay, there’s a system. If you don’t like the result, you can file an appeal, there’s a motion for reconsideration. You might not always get the result that you want, but at least there’s the right to tell your story. And that was being taken away from us. Two days before the ban, I could have gone back there at the airport and talked to these officers—and now the governor of Virginia couldn’t even do it. The attorney general of Virginia couldn’t. And Sen. Cory Booker drove down from New Jersey that night, and he couldn’t directly talk to them.

If somebody could just sign away all those rights and change the system with the stroke of a pen, 10 minutes from my house within 24 hours, then this system must be a lot more fragile than I had thought. I realized that we would have to push back. We would have to use community rallying. If the rules aren’t working for us, then we are going to come together and we’re going to change the rules. And so I walked into Dulles that night as a lawyer, but I walked out as an advocate.

MJ: Why do you want to run for the state House?

HA: The state House is where all the action is. That’s where the decisions are made that actually affect my clients’ lives and the community that I’ve been serving for the past 12 years in Virginia—being able to get a driver’s license, being able to send your kids to school, being able to not live in a constant state of fear, looking over your shoulder, waiting for someone to come and grab you. This is where I’ve chosen to raise my children, and it’s really, really important to me that they grow up in a community that values the rights of the most vulnerable.

MJ: Have you had a lot of experience in politics?

HA: No, I’m a complete political neophyte. I’m not ashamed to say that.

MJ: And how does it feel to be running?

HA: I guess it feels like jumping into a pool without knowing how deep it is. It’s exciting, and it’s a little scary as well. But I always had this vision of myself after retirement, looking at this whole room full of closed cases and saying, “Hey, that was a pretty good way to spend my career, right?” Every file is somebody’s life that I was able to positively impact in some way. And that would have been fine. But when [the Trump administration] started changing the rules on us, that’s when I realized that I wouldn’t be able to look back on my career and not do something to change the system, or at least protect due process. What did I do with my privilege? Did I just sort of stay in my own comfort zone or did I try and do something? I needed to get out of my comfort zone because I don’t know if I’d be able to live with myself if I didn’t.

MJ: There’s been a lot more interest in understanding immigration policy under the Trump administration. How would you say that immigration policy has changed under Trump, and what do you wish people better understood about it?

HA: It’s changed most dramatically because white nationalism has become policy. A lot of Trump’s immigration policies—the public charge rule, de-designation of temporary protected status, or changing the rules for asylum-seekers—these ideas originated with groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and I think what a lot of people don’t understand is that the administration didn’t come up with them. Stephen Miller didn’t sit around and come up with these policies by himself. Groups like FAIR, the Center for Immigration Studies, and NumbersUSA have been working on these policies and clamoring for them for the past 40 years.

MJ: You’re Muslim as well. Does the travel ban personally affect you, and how does your identity shape your response to all this?

HA: Of course it does. I went to Dulles that night because I’m an immigration attorney, I’m Muslim, this is a Muslim ban, and I had to be there. But what really impacted me, and in large part inspired me to run for office, was the fact that most of the people that showed up at Dulles and at airports around the country were neither. They didn’t have family members or clients who were going to be directly impacted. But they still showed up, right? That was really inspiring to me, and I think that’s what I’m trying to do—show up.

MJ: So it’s been almost two years since you went to the airport. How do you feel about the state of the Muslim ban right now, and do you think there’s still hope?

HA: I have no doubt that with continued pushing and continued rallying of the community and a continued voice that says, “No, we’re not going to accept this,” the ban will be relegated to the trash bin of history.

But that’s what it’s going to take. The Supreme Court has spoken, and [the Trump administration] has won a victory. But look what else has happened. So many people came out and said, “We’re not going to accept this.” And the first ban was struck down and the second ban was struck down. And the third ban was limited eventually.

Still, there’s not sufficient pushback against this rhetoric that says that we have to be afraid of people, we have to vet them, and that they have to prove themselves if they want to gain the right to come here. Instead of looking at things from a compassionate viewpoint, there’s white nationalist rhetoric—and a vision of America that looks a certain way. Yes, we have a lot of fires to put out, but we have to spend some time thinking about the flamethrower, and that’s what I’m trying to do. There’s so many different ways that these communities are negatively impacted by the way the laws are implemented, whether it’s federal law or state law. And like I said, that change starts in your own backyard.

MJ: What do you think still needs to be done around the ban? It seems like there hasn’t been as much attention around it recently.

HA: The administration has moved the place of the ban from the airports to the consulates—so out of sight, out of mind. But those of us that are inside the space know that, whether it’s in the mainstream media or in the public consciousness or not, these challenges are still real and families are still being separated. The advocacy and the litigation and the refusal to accept it are still going, and it’s still going strong. You might not have the thrills of attention we had that first night, but people are very committed, and lawsuits are being filed now in the wake of the Supreme Court upholding the ban. The Trump administration has not been able to roll out a policy without a challenge.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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