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ACLU Attorneys Plan To Challenge Legality Of Immigration Executive Order

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're spending the hour talking mainly about the reaction to President Trump's executive order on refugee resettlement and immigration. Starting on Saturday, attorneys filed legal challenges to the order, calling on judges to order the release of those detained and also asking judges to prevent the deportation of those who may have been detained.

Lee Gelernt is the deputy director of the Immigrants' Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. He was one of the attorneys who argued on behalf of those detained in federal court. Last night, a federal judge granted the ACLU's request to temporarily halt the deportations. I reached Mr. Gelernter (ph) and I asked him if the order affected people in airports across the country.

LEE GELERNT: There is a lot of confusion. Our case in New York is a nationwide case, so it bars the government from removing anybody nationwide who has been stopped and detained, according to the Trump executive order.

MARTIN: How long does this injunction last?

GELERNT: The injunction lasts until the judge decides the ultimate merits of the case. And so what she said is look, there's going to be too much harm if I allow these people to be removed. There's not going to be harm to the government because all these people were extensively vetted beforehand. I want to have time to figure out whether this executive order is lawful.

MARTIN: And I do want to emphasize that we are reaching out to the White House and to other agencies within the federal government to get their perspective on these issues as well. Do you have any idea how many people are actually still detained in U.S. airports under these conditions?

GELERNT: Yeah, that's really one of the stories going on, is that the government has not supplied information. There's chaos. We don't know the full numbers. I represent to the court that we have been hearing stories of 100 to 200 people, maybe more. And so we asked the court to order the government to provide us a list of all the people who were detained around the country. The court agreed and ordered the government to turn over a list of all the people who are being detained, and we expect that list shortly. But I think that's a critical aspect of this, is that people are languishing in airports all over the country. We don't know if they have counsel. Most likely most of them don't have counsel. And we need to reach these people.

MARTIN: I'm assuming here that the ACLU is actually seeking a - kind of a broader rejection of this executive order. Would that be fair to say?

GELERNT: That's absolutely right. The ultimate goal of this litigation is to challenge the legality of the order. The one thing I want to make clear is this particular initial litigation applies only to people who have made it to U.S. soil. You know, there may very well be subsequent challenges to how the order affects people who are still overseas.

MARTIN: And then the next question would be - what is the legal basis for challenging it? I mean, the Constitution gives the president broad authority in matters of national security. The president says that this is a temporary measure to assure that proper vetting is in place. What is the legal basis for challenging it?

GELERNT: The one thing I would say is we do not actually believe this kind of blunderbuss approach is necessary for national security. That's a critical aspect of the legal challenge. Just stepping back, I think there's, you know, a lot of talk about how the president can do whatever he wants in the immigration area as long as he asserts national security, and it's just absolutely wrong.

For one thing, anybody who reaches U.S. soil has the right to apply for asylum. That is grounded in our immigration laws. The president cannot ignore it. There are a variety of other constitutional challenges. But, you know, at bottom, it's simply wrong for people to argue the president can do whatever he wants as long as it's in the immigration area and he asserts national security.

MARTIN: That's Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants' Rights Project. He was with us from New York. Mr. Gelernt, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GELERNT: Oh, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.