Weeks of planning went into our logistics to hear oral arguments in the biggest immigration case to come before the Supreme Court since I’d become an attorney. But when I finally approached the court grounds that Sunday afternoon before the April 18 argument, it was all a bit disorienting. After all I was preparing to camp out on the grounds of the august Supreme Court building.
My hope was that our group would receive tickets for the precious few public seats available to hear the oral arguments in U.S. v. Texas. The case over President Barack Obama’s executive orders could mean a dramatic change in the lives of up to 5 million people.
My feelings of disorientation and worry lifted the moment I saw my friend and colleague, Jose Magaña-Salgado of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. In the hours that followed we were joined by our colleagues from MALDEF and SEIU. Jose and I represent our respective organizations and serve as co-chairs for the Committee for Immigration Reform Implementation’s Advocacy Working Group. Jose was the lead organizer of the court-watching strategy.
By early evening we were getting to know our neighbors for the night. Next to us in line was a group from Arizona, including a family with a baby who had traveled thousands of miles to be there. Friends and loved ones visited, offering supportive words and generous treats. We shared information on nearby restrooms, as we started to think through the timelines and requirements for resting, waking, and freshening up suitably before we needed to be in line for admission to the court in the morning.
As the evening wore on, a group of young immigrant activists started a march around the court building. It was invigorating to see them unified in movement and message. We followed them to the steps for a vigil service. It was led by women of extraordinary strength who traveled from all over the country and were fasting to raise awareness about the people whose lives might be affected by the case. The young activists joined the circle of fasting women and were welcomed with gratitude for their advocacy. “You are the reflection of us. This is our movement – unity of families.” Among the crowd was a little girl, probably 3 or 4 years old, who wanted to be involved. I considered such a young child and her parents living in fear of separation. I choked back tears as I thought of the millions of families who face that fear each day.
The Rev. Michael Wilker, pastor of the nearby Lutheran Church of the Reformation, greeted us. “We are gathered here with hearts wide open,” he said. We prayed for compassion and justice, a daily prayer that I say to myself each morning as I prepare to go to work. As the vigil concluded, those of us staying overnight got ourselves organized. Before closing my eyes to try to get some sleep, I read the messages of support and prayer from my pastor, family and friends.
The cacophony of birds chirping at dawn got us moving and we were off to make use of the bathroom at Union Station, three blocks from the court. During years of commuting through that station, I had always considered the restroom there a place of last resort. On this day, the facilities were valued as we tried to tidy our hair and fix our makeup before dismantling our little camp to wait for the marshals to come with the first round of tickets.
The first 50 tickets were handed out to our line, the public admission line. There was another line for attorneys who are licensed to appear before the Supreme Court. I had stopped by earlier in the morning to see CLINIC Executive Director Jeanne Atkinson, among other friends and colleagues. We weren’t in the first to be admitted, but there were only three people ahead of our group of five. We remained hopeful. Finally, after 18 hours of waiting, the marshals came to our line again. The five of us were in! As I walked up the stairs I heard cheering from CLINIC colleagues farther back in line. It felt a bit surreal to be walking into the highest court in the land to hear such an important case.
The courtroom is relatively small. It was packed with people – cabinet secretaries, justices of the Canadian high court, members of Congress, state attorneys general, top agency officials, etc. I focused on the non-dignitaries, though. My heart was filled with gratitude as I saw the faces of the people who were ahead of us in line, the women and men and families affected by the case. The justices could look out and see their faces as they considered the arguments.
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli was in the midst of arguments when we entered. He was emphasizing the government’s position that the opposing states lack standing to challenge the president’s deferred action initiatives. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito questioned him about lawful presence and work authorization, moving the merits of the case. By the end of the solicitor general’s argument, I felt a bit anxious, trying to process the questions and consider what it all meant for the government’s case.
Next up to argue was Thomas A. Saenz of MALDEF, who was making his first argument before the Supreme Court as the representative of three women who could potentially benefit from the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program.
Scott A. Keller, the Texas solicitor general, began his argument and was promptly interrupted by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The questions from Justices Elena Kagan and Sotomayor were sharply focused on the merits and issues, demonstrating an impressive level of knowledge of immigration law. An attorney for the House of Representatives followed Keller. Verrilli closed with his rebuttal, emphasizing the tremendous implications of the Texas suit on not just the 5 million undocumented people who could benefit from expanded DACA and DAPA, but for many more.
When the arguments concluded and we headed for the doors, I said a quick prayer for justice and to give thanks for the experience. As we stepped out to descend the steps, the warmth of the sun and tremendous positive energy of the crowd below enveloped us. Thousands of people were there. “Sí se puede!” rang out. The power of prayer and positive thinking is transformational as we work for justice. Let us pray for the justices on the court and the millions of families who we hope will soon be able to benefit from these important protections.
A ruling is expected in late June.
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Jill Marie Bussey is a CLINIC Advocacy Attorney.