For years, attorney and former teacher Hailly Korman has advocated on behalf of America’s most at-risk kids. But she’s never been an immigration lawyer.
Her work has included a groundbreaking lawsuit
that found that seniority-based teacher layoffs in Los Angeles violated the rights of students in high-poverty schools to equal educational opportunities. She’s worked to secure high-quality education services for students in secure juvenile-justice facilities. Most recently, she became a principal at the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners, where she focuses on correctional education, justice-involved youth and school discipline.
She’d never had to wrestle with U.S. Customs agents. But that changed last week.
On January 27, President Trump signed an executive order — which a federal judge has temporarily halted — barring citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. Families who boarded international flights before Trump’s order was announced found themselves in limbo by the time their jets touched American soil. Some were detained for hours without food, while others were shoved back onto airplanes and deported — back to countries that have been torn apart by violence.
Korman found herself in the middle of it all. Shortly after Trump signed the order — purely by coincidence — she boarded a flight from Los Angeles to Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., which quickly became one of the staging grounds for America’s biggest immigration battle in recent history. And when she landed January 29, she decided to help.
On Tuesday, Korman told The 74 about the assistance she gave at Dulles that day and the support she has provided ever since. The interview is edited lightly for length and clarity.
How did you wind up involved with attorneys at Dulles Airport?
Korman: I’ve never been an immigration lawyer; that’s never been the sort of thing that I’ve worked on. But when the executive order was signed, I was in Los Angeles — that’s where I live, and I was coming to D.C. for separate work-related travel. My grandma lives in D.C., so I was going to come a couple of days early to spend some time with her over the weekend.
When I landed at Dulles — you’ve seen all this press coverage around not just protesters and lawyers and people trying to get through — but it was right at the moment that we started hearing stories of awful things happening to folks. It wasn’t just an ordinary detention or a delay in arrivals, but we really started to hear some troubling things about what was going on. Customs and Border Protection refusing to talk to U.S. senators who were coming to try to figure out what was happening.
When I landed at Dulles, I just thought, “Well, I’m going to see what’s going on and see if I can be helpful since I’m here anyway and I have a couple of hours.” In part, for me, it’s personal. My grandparents were refugees. I’m actually part Canadian. I’m a dual citizen. My husband’s family are immigrants.
It suddenly felt like a threat to my existential American-ness. When I landed at Dulles, I was like, “I want to see what happens when I get off this airplane.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with Dulles Airport, but all of the baggage is all in one area, so when you come out, there is this crowd of people, and they’re trying to welcome folks from international arrivals, and there’s a table set up and a little handwritten sign, “Lawyers go here.” And so I just walked over, and I’m like, “I’m from California, but I have a couple hours. I’m not an immigration lawyer, but I can help. I take direction well.” And they were like, “You sign up here, make a name tag, here you go.” And that is this very nascent stage of some sort of organization, and they were like, “Can you do social media?” I was like, “Sure, I can do that.” Seems like not something I need to be a lawyer to do, but I’m happy to be helpful.
Because there were a lot of people sort of waiting for someone to tell them what to do, and because in my other professional life I do a lot of project management, I just started telling people what to do, and it ended up sorting itself out. We had this crowd of folks who were like, “I have a lot of the communications experience, I’d like to be helpful, what can I do?”
You realize, looking around, there is nobody in charge, everyone is just trying to figure out how to best be helpful, and so it was really quite the accident that I ended up being in the center of it. But it was one of those things that I felt like I was in a place to be helpful, I had the skill set and knowledge to be helpful, and I felt safe in doing that, and so it seemed like something I should do.
Did you make any connection to civil rights issues in education with what you were doing at Dulles?
There are some connections in that, as an American, as a person, as a lawyer, I care a lot about rule of law, which doesn’t seem like a strong position one should have to take in 2017, but maybe it is. It is the philosophical underpinning of this country that makes the most sense to me, that we are a country of laws, not people.
We had a Virginia court order that said if nothing more, people were permitted access to counsel. Even if they couldn’t get through, they still ought to be allowed to talk to lawyers, and Customs and Border [Protection] would not let any lawyers talk to anybody, and that was the frightening moment for me. What is about to happen here when we’ve got a law enforcement agency that is refusing to comply with a court order? This idea — that something that I had understood to be so fundamental to the way that we organize our society in fact could be so fragile — I think was upsetting to me.
In the last week, it was hard for me to concentrate on work. I couldn’t watch TV, I couldn’t read a book because I was so distracted by everything that was going on. I couldn’t sleep at night, and it wasn’t even happening to me. I had an uncle flying in from India. We wanted to make sure he got in safely — he did; he had no trouble. The worry that it could happen to me and the knowledge that it was happening to other people made it really, really hard for me to concentrate on all the ordinary parts of life. I just like to imagine what that week was like for other families, for parents separated from their children, children separated from their parents, but even beyond that. Even just an uncle or a grandparent or a family friend, a neighbor. Knowing that all that is happening, the folks who lived next door to you for 20 years and they went to Cabo for the weekend and now can’t come home again. You sort of imagine what that does to a kid who then shows up [at school] and we’re like, “You need to learn arithmetic,” and how these big national events fundamentally destabilize communities in ways I’m not sure our schools are really prepared to reckon with.
Trauma is probably a leading cause of many issues for students who are caught up in the juvenile-justice system. It seems like you were able to witness what a lot of the kids you’ve been working with over the years go through.
It sort of reinvigorated my empathy for the things I know intellectually. I think it was a reminder it doesn’t even have to be what we might think of ordinarily as a significantly traumatic event. It’s not a violent act that happened to your body; it’s not anything like that. Even just being witness to these disruptive, national experiences, I think, really helped me remember what it’s like to be 10 or 11 and to feel totally out of control about what’s happening in your life and to feel that sense of unpredictability. You don’t know what the next day holds, and how hard it is when you’re in that moment to think about your long-term goals or how to invest in your future when you feel that sense of insecurity. I think maybe that is the piece that connects to the juvenile-justice work that I’ve done.
You read articles about refugee families who sold everything that they own. They’ve been planning for years to relocate to the U.S. and then ended up stranded at an international connection with nowhere to go and no home to go back to, and it’s that sense of hopelessness, that you’re so at the mercy of people with power — that is the big empathetic thread that I see here that can lead people to make really terrible decisions.
How many children did you see, and what did you hear from them?
In the time that I was at Dulles, the families that were coming through, everyone that was getting detained was either kept back there or was deported. In those first couple of days, people were not coming out on the other side, and so we had very minimal information. It was a lot of lawyers collaborating with each other.
We weren’t able to get any information from the other side of Customs, and so all we would know is, “This flight landed, the family says he’s on the flight, we don’t know where he is,” and just sort of waiting and seeing and going over and saying, “We want to talk to this client. We know there is someone over there,” and then being stonewalled by Customs.
In all that frustration, it was incredible to see the welcome committee that had rallied at the international arrivals terminal, and there were lots of people who brought their kids to that, folks just waving signs as people are coming through. We had folks coming around bringing snacks and juice, and there was a family that came, dad pulling a wagon with his daughter in it, and she was handing out apples and oranges from the wagon to all the lawyers and the families waiting. I think there were some folks who really took the opportunity to give their own children civics lessons and to go down and engage and participate. I’m glad that people did that.
We did hear a handful of stories of parents being separated from their young kids, kids being detained without a parent, infants being separated. I personally didn’t see any of it — it was all going on behind the closed doors.
Even refugee children who haven’t experienced this state of limbo have experienced trauma, being from war-torn nations. How can schools better serve kids who have experienced this?
Our schools right now aren’t even prepared to fully acknowledge what that experience is and what that means for kids. Quite frankly, you hear adults who talk about how difficult it was to move during elementary school because they had to leave all their friends behind and change schools, and they feel it really shaped their childhood. Imagine doing that under duress, in a hurry, in the middle of the night, having witnessed maybe incredible violence and seeing it happen maybe to your own family.
I think that our schools are not well-equipped to provide the kind of support that kids need, and I think there are folks in this space who wonder if schools ought to be the place where kids get that at all, if it’s even appropriate to be asking schools to do that, especially since we know they don’t have the resources or the capacity right now to do it all that well.
Sometimes there are things that kids can’t leave at home. They can’t just, for six hours, sort of put their head down and get the work done and pay attention. I don’t think schools right now have what they need to do this well, whether that’s training, whether that’s resources, whether it’s simply time, but I do think we need to get better at it.
Kids don’t leave this stuff at home. Last week, I didn’t leave it at home. I couldn’t.
Are you going back to Dulles to help? What’s your next step with this?
Most of what I’ve been doing, probably the last five or six days, is supporting and managing what we call the back office, which are all the folks doing the email blasts and organizing volunteers and making sure that there are translators for shifts. My role in that has been air traffic control a little bit. A lot of those folks are not lawyers, and so [I’ve been] translating some of the legal filings for them so they understand what the state of affairs really is. What happens at 6 o’clock tonight when the Ninth Circuit hears these arguments? What happens if they decide this way? What happens if they decide that way? That’s stuff I can do remotely, and so I certainly will do it as much as I’m able to.
During the election, Korman wrote a post for The 74 about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Andrew Rotherham, co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, serves on The 74’s board of directors.