A Year After Becoming a Citizen, This Ecuadorean Lawyer Is Fighting Trump’s Muslim Ban

Lead Photo: Photo: Craig Warga
Photo: Craig Warga
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As a recent subway encounter demonstrated, we have a long way to go to defeat colorism and Islamophobia in the Latino community. When one Puerto Rican woman verbally attacked a Muslim couple on the New York City subway, a young Chinese-Peruvian woman named Tracey Tong ardently defended the pair. With someone capturing the moment on camera, the world saw what solidarity looked like. At a time when our federal government’s intent on enacting a Muslim ban, it’s these stories of people refusing to normalize hate that are so necessary. It’s why the work of Luis Mancheno – a lawyer born in Ecuador – and his colleagues is so imperative.

On January 28, 2017 – just a day after President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning Syrian refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries – Mancheno headed to the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. At the same site that his citizenship ceremony took place less than a year before, he fought for Muslims trying to gain entry into the United States. Like so many lawyers, he responded to the Muslim ban by diving right into work. Mancheno – a teaching fellow at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan – and his colleague, Jacqueline Pearce, met a woman whose wheelchair-bound sister was denied entry, despite having a valid permanent resident visa, according to the Huffington Post.

He took immediate action by filing a motion to at least temporarily prevent the deportation of the Syrian woman. At about 8:50 p.m., Pearce learned that authorities aimed to deport the Syrian woman in half an hour. Their other colleague, Peter Markowitz, was in the courtroom at the same time. As a judge listened to the American Civil Liberties Union’s challenge to the Muslim ban, Markowitz passed a note to an ACLU attorney notifying him that at any minute, the government planned to deport a woman back to Syria. Based on that note, the judge issued a stay.

Initially, Mancheno and his coworkers didn’t know the Syrian woman’s fate. But at 11 p.m., they learned she made it past customs. Someone captured the moment the two sisters reunited on camera. Mancheno had seen some versions of it, but when Huffington Post shared a new video with him, his eyes welled up with tears. “I am happy because I feel like we did a good thing,” Mancheno said. “We got the job done. But it’s so unfair and I’m angry every time that I see that people have to celebrate to see their family members who have an actual legal right to be in this country. Celebrate that they are not being detained just because of where they’re from, and just because the president thinks that they’re all Muslims [and] should be banned from this country.”

Mancheno knows what it’s like to be persecuted for being himself. As a gay man, he fled his native Ecuador in his early 20s. In 2007, he went to a gay bar with his friend. Someone drugged the two of them. They awoke in Mancheno’s car, with their pants pulled down at the edge of a cliff. A light post saved their lives.

“And the only reason why I was still alive and my friend was still alive is because there was a light post,” he said. “Because other than that, the car would have rolled down the cliff and we would have died.”

With no help from the police and because he lacked a support system at home, he knew he could no longer stay in Ecuador. “I knew that I was not going to have the protection from the police,” he said. “And next time, there might not be a light post to save my life.”

He arrived in the United States on a student visa, and eventually he learned that he could apply for asylum, which the government granted him in 2009. Going through the process for asylum taught Mancheno, who went on to study law at the Roger Williams University School of Law, the pivotal role that immigration lawyers play. It inspired him to “help the next Luis Mancheno that comes down the line, who needs a lawyer, who doesn’t have all the privileges that I had.” He has since guided others, especially low-income defendants, through the immigration system.

With the many legal challenges leveled at Trump’s Muslim ban, his administration promised to come back with an updated version instead of fighting it out in court. The team followed through on this promise with a new ban on March 6, which didn’t include Iraq on the list of Muslim-majority countries banned from entering the United States. As CNN reports, the Muslim ban currently faces more legal challenges in court – with the latest blocks coming right before the ban was supposed to go into effect.

As the future of the Muslim ban hangs in the balance, Mancheno and his colleague have turned their focus toward the other ways that the Trump administration wants to shut out immigrants – this includes the deportation of undocumented immigrants with clean records and more expansive border security.

“Closing the door to the people that need help the most is one of the cruelest, anti-American things that this government could have done,” he said. “If I wasn’t allowed to come here as a refugee, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

h/t Huffington Post