Canadian law students join forces to help those affected by Trump's travel ban

Brodie Noga, left, Anna Gilmer and Rachelle Bastarache organized the research-a-thon at McGill University: “With events unfolding as they are in the U.S. right now,” Noga said, “a lot of us (were) looking for somewhere to put our practical skills to use.”

As U.S. President Donald Trump railed on Twitter against the judge who has temporarily forced the lifting of his ban on travellers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, law students from every law faculty across Canada put their heads together to determine how Canadian law can be applied to help refugees the U.S. turns away.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge James Robart issued a nationwide temporary restraining order against Trump’s travel ban in response to a constitutional challenge brought forward by the states of Washington and Minnesota. On Saturday morning, Trump tweeted: “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!”

Brodie Noga was among the 40 to 50 law students and recent law graduates from McGill University, Université de Montréal and Université du Québec participating in the “Research-a-thon” in a classroom at McGill’s law faculty Saturday afternoon. Over a period of 12 hours, hundreds of law students at all 22 law faculties across the country worked together to answer 18 questions and examine issues suggested to them by the Canadian Council for Refugees.

The students were planning to send draft memos and opinions on those issues to law students at the University of Alberta and the University of Manitoba at the end of the day Saturday. Those teams will then edit and consolidate the papers, and forward them to the CCR Sunday night, so organization can move ahead quickly with advocacy and potential legal challenges. 

“We are providing answers to the questions we’ve been asked by the CCR, but also we are providing them with a resource of relevant cases so that their lawyers don’t have to go through and read all these cases,” Noga said. “They can see what’s relevant and use them as they see fit.”

Noga said participating in this voluntary initiative, conceived by McGill law student Rachelle Bastarache, has allowed law students across Canada to put their research and knowledge to constructive use. It has also been a great way to channel the angst he and many others have been feeling about Trump’s executive order issued Jan. 27, he said.

“For a lot of law students, we come in with the idea that we are getting law degrees to make a practical difference in the world and sometimes when you are in law school and you start getting concerned about the job market, it’s easy to lose sight of that. With events unfolding as they are in the U.S. right now, a lot of us (were) looking for somewhere to put our practical skills to use.”

Law students, lawyers and human-rights advocates also flocked to airports across Canada this week to try to identify and help refugees that were affected by the ban before it was temporarily lifted. 

“What was fascinating was to see how fast people mobilized around this,” said Pearl Eliadis, a Montreal human rights lawyer who teaches at McGill.

“There has been this amazing coalescing of lawyers, advocates, scholars around what is manifestly a deeply troubling development in international law and in Canada’s relationship with the United States.”

One of the key questions being studied is whether Canada should pull out of the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement. Under that agreement, refugee claimants must request refugee protection in the first safe country they arrive in, which means Canada usually does not accept refugees who have already entered through the United States. The U.S. is the only country designated a safe third country by Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. 

Eliadis said she and many others in the legal community are of the opinion the Canada government should now review that designation.

“They should be obliged to review the designation based on the current facts and the current legal environment in the United states and seriously reconsider whether or not the United States is, indeed, a safe country anymore,” she said.

On Saturday, Canada’s new minister of immigration, refugee and citizenship said Canada will continue to open its borders to refugees, even as the U.S. and other countries close theirs. 

“As more and more countries are taking a different approach, of closing their borders, or not being open to new people or ideas, we’ve chosen the opposite approach, which is being open to ideas, being open to people, being open to talent, being open to skills and investments and we’ll continue to have that tradition,” Ahmed Hussen said on the CBC Radio program The House.

But news some Canadian permanent residents and dual citizens from the seven targeted countries have had their Nexus cards revoked is raising concerns Canada may be discriminating based on religion with regards to the Nexus program. A Nexus card is a travel document that allows faster passage through customs for passengers who have already been screened by Customs and Border Protection and the Canadian Border Services Agency.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association issued a statement Saturday condemning “any and all discriminatory decisions made on the basis of race or religious affiliation … and (encouraging) the Canadian government to advocate for the affected Canadians, to ensure that there is no room for racial or religious discrimination in the implementation of Nexus program rules, and to work to establish a transparent and expeditious appeal process for affected individuals.”

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