ACLU says it raised $10 million since Saturday

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
Niloofar Radgoudarzi thanks the crowd for protesting after her father was released from custody at San Francisco International Airport. (Photo: Kate Munsch/Reuters)

The American Civil Liberties Union says it has raised over $10 million since Saturday morning and gotten over 150,000 new members in what the group’s executive director calls an “unprecedented” response to President Trump’s executive order blocking entry into the United States from citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Anthony Romero, executive director of the civil liberties group, told Yahoo News in a telephone interview. “People are fired up and want to be engaged. What we’ve seen is an unprecedented public reaction to the challenges of the Trump administration.”

Romero spoke the day after a federal judge in Brooklyn blocked parts of the Trump administration’s order following a hastily ordered hearing Saturday night. The judge, Ann Donnelly, concluded the ACLU and allied groups had a “strong likelihood of success” that they would prevail in an emergency complaint contending the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to deport detainees who had already been granted visas to enter the country violated their due process and equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution.

The Trump administration is expected to appeal that ruling — and similar ones by judges in Washington State, Virginia and Massachusetts — to federal appellate courts, possibly in the next few days, setting up a legal battle that could end up fairly quickly before the Supreme Court. But Romero, whose group is spearheading the legal challenges, sees the public protests in response to the order as the harbinger of a new wave of resistance to the initiatives of the Trump administration. Hundreds of demonstrators showed up outside Donnelly’s courtroom in Brooklyn on Saturday night.

Protesters outside the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse as a judge hears a challenge against President Trump’s executive order. (Photo: Yana Paskova/Getty Images)

“With Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the Democrats in disarray and lacking any spine, the two pincers (opposing Trump) have to be litigation and citizen action,” Romero said.

How successful the ACLU will ultimately be before the courts is far from clear. Donnelly’s order only applies to a small category of those affected by the order: individuals who had already been granted visas to enter the country and flew into the U.S. only to be detained at airports because of their nationality. (The Department of Homeland Security said Sunday that this applied to 109 people; Romero says he’s gotten reports suggesting the number is closer to 200.) The broader legal fight is over the ACLU’s argument that the entire order is unconstitutional because Trump indicated that Christian refugees fleeing persecution would be prioritizes for exceptions over other refugees. This amounts to a “carve out” for one religious group that the ACLU intends to argue is unconstitutional under the First Amendment, Romero said.

Romero is clearly seeking to position the 97-year-old ACLU to be at the forefront of the battle against Trump, filing multiple lawsuits — including one this week seeking documents on Trump’s business ties — coupled with appeals for funds on its website. “He discriminated: We sued. Donate Monthly,” read a banner on the top of the group’s website Sunday.

As Romero tells it, those efforts were starting to pay off even before the weekend dustup over the immigration order. Overall, the group’s membership has more than doubled since the November election, jumping from about 400,000 to over 1 million, he said. Moreover, there is every sign that will continue: On Sunday, the group and its affiliates were mounting public demonstrations over the order in New York, Boston and elsewhere.

Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU. (Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

One factor clearly helping the group is what appears to be confusion and disarray within the Trump administration and the departments charged with carrying out the executive order. Romero noted that during the hearing leading up to the stay, the assistant U.S. attorney charged with defending the Trump administration’s position had to defer to a Customs and Border Patrol official, on the phone, to answer the judge’s questions about how the order was being implemented. Key issues — such as whether it would apply to legal residents with green cards — were unclear and prompted contradictory responses from administration officials.

“It was Keystone Cops-like,” Romero said. “Clearly, they didn’t have their act together.” (“As far as green-card holders going forward, it doesn’t affect them,” Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said on NBC News’s “Meet the Press,” contradicting what government officials had said only a day earlier.)

And as the protests mount, Romero is looking for one group to eventually join in: officials and lawyers from within the government itself, which predicts who may ultimately refuse to defend the administration’s actions.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if individuals in the Justice Department, and holdovers from the Obama administration, and even career department lawyers , will have a hard time defending this,” he said.

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