#helpthelaywers: crowdsourcing to defeat Trump

#helpthelaywers: how the internet is crowdsourcing the resources to defeat the Trump travel ban

On Monday the 6th of March, US President Donald Trump issued a revised and somewhat downsized Executive Order dubbed Muslim Ban 2.0. The states of Hawaii, New York and Washington filed prompt lawsuits against the new restraining order, and two Federal Judges blocked the ban before it came into effect on the 16th of March, which is now headed to an appeals court.

But with little of the fanfare that accompanied the first attempt at restricting the entry of people from seven muslim-majority countries, it has received comparatively less coverage than the first order, which rolled out on 27th January and conceded defeat just a few weeks later.

Still, as legal contestations mount against the new travel ban, it reminds us of the inspiring humanitarian effort that occurred during the first ban, as American lawyers flocked to airports to assist arrivals to the US. Their good work was facilitated largely by internet crowdsourcing, which demonstrated the power of the people flying in the face of an oppressive immigration policy.


On 29th of January 2017, the hashtag #helpthelawyers was first used in the context of providing support to volunteer airport attorneys; to help provide them with the resources they needed to continue their good work at the border. Within a matter of hours, people were using the hashtag to request spare laptops, offer translation and interpretation services, or to request relief lawyers to tap-in.

Dr Sara Kubrik, Kelly Clay and Natalie Lyda are the benevolent minds behind Help the Lawyers, the Twitter movement that has now grown to become a registered company. With backgrounds in marketing, law and technology, the three women devised the system by which lawyers donating their time and expertise at airport borders could crowdsource the resources they needed.

In order to continue to support those in need of legal aid entering the US, the trio set up a crowdfunding page to raise money for the food, transport, and secure storage bins and meeting spaces the lawyers need to do their pro-bono work. It’s a prime example of crisis communications, where the general public works together using online and social media platforms to provide emergency support to those in need.

#helpthelaywers to communicate

One of the first challenges US lawyers faced during the early days of the ban was overcoming language barriers. Most of those affected by the travel restrictions were Arabic or Farsi speakers; many with little knowledge of English. This meant interpreters trained in the specifics of legal translations were among the first ‘resources’ required to help defeat the Trump travel ban.

In instances where face-to-face interpreters were unavailable, phone interpreters were called in to facilitate a dialogue between lawyers and foreign language speakers. With today’s tech, none of the participants need be in the same geographical location as one another in order to perform a video or phone interpretation, as long as they can can ‘dial in’ to an audio or video conferencing call.

Expert phone interpreters with experience and training in legal communications can be available at short notice, 24/7. As translation agency Global Voices points out, telephone interpreters also offer the additional advantage of anonymity for those already feeling themselves at risk. Telephone interpreting was therefore the perfect solution for those working across restrictive customs and border controls.

#helpthelaywers build infrastructure

With offers and requests for help and support flooding the inboxes of legal firms, a second challenge that faced lawyers was coordinating their efforts to deliver legal aid where and when it was needed. Relying on portable devices like phones and laptops, legal firms initially struggled to manage listservs and reply-all waterfalls, given the thousands of responses to the #helpthelawyers call to action.

Organising the sheer volume of communications was initially overwhelming, but technology again enabled them to meet the challenge: “It was Friday at 2 p.m. We said, ‘I bet we could have a website up today’” Ed Walters, CEO of Fastcase told Legal Tech News.

That same evening, the members of the Futures Initiative, with some assistance from the ABA’s Center for Innovation group, launched ImmigrationJustice.us, a website to help legal attorneys, translators and other volunteers coordinate with local assistance efforts. They weren’t the only ones. Just days after the ban came into effect, AirportLawyer.org was live, a website that allows anyone to log on to request assistance and automatically forwards those requests to coordinating attorneys close by.

The two websites soon began collaborating to help alleviate the organisational burden of connecting those affected by the Order with legal support at the ground-level. The teams behind the web infrastructure also compiled detailed notes on the process they used to develop the sites so quickly.

#helpthelaywers defeat the travel ban

As the fight shifted away from the airport ‘front line’ and into the courts, the next task came in mounting a legal challenge against the Executive Order.

With a mass social-media mobilisation of support for the American Civil Liberties Union, legal academics and practicing attorneys rallied to conduct a legal analysis, hoping for grounds to contest the ban. Commonly, the fight looked to prove the Order violated the constitution and sought to prove discrimination. The liberal-leaning Washington state became the first state to have its attorney general issue a legal challenge to the travel ban. Private foreign nationals were also quick to file lawsuits against the ban.

Meanwhile, social media rallied protesters and marchers who took to the streets to demonstrate their opposition in Manhattan, Washington DC, Florida and many more. Hashtags like #nobannowall, #lovetrumpshate, #standuptotrump and #nomuslimban proliferated, channelling news and details of protest gatherings faster than traditional news sources were able.

In London, a rally against Trump’s travel ban took place on 4th February, taking the fight to the US Embassy in the UK and calling on Parliament to withdraw its invitation of a state visit to Trump. In Paris, too, a march on the streets took place in opposition to the immigration order. In both cases, crowds gathered after news of the demonstrations amassed on Facebook and other social media.

Who knows what resources will be needed and made available this time around, but one thing’s for sure, the power of social media and internet infrastructure are greatly facilitating the fight and helping them mount a coordinated response. As proven by the recent rallying on behalf all those affected by the Immigration Ban, with a little helping hand from technology and some good will, we can crowdsource the resources to defeat anything.

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