We Said We Would See Him in Court and We Did

Several months into the Trump administration, my wife was
doing The New York Times crossword puzzle and came across this clue: “Group
that told President Trump, ‘We’ll see you in court.’” I’m not generally much use
when it comes to the crossword, but on that one I could help. She didn’t really
need the assistance of course, as the ACLU is my employer, and she, The New
York Times crossword puzzle drafters, and much of the country already knew that
it was the ACLU who told the president we’d see him in court.   

In fact, we told him that before he took office. Just days after
he improbably won the presidential election, we took out ads in The New York
Times and Los Angeles Times telling
the president-elect
that if he sought to implement some of the programs he
had promised on the campaign trail — denying legal access to abortion, implementing
restrictive immigration practices, undermining voting rights and more — we would
sue. We kept our promise.


As we mark three years since we put President-elect Trump on
notice, we’ve filed over 100 lawsuits, and over 140 other legal actions — Freedom
of Information Act requests, administrative complaints, and other legal
mechanisms to halt illegal policies — against the president, his
administration, or those inspired by his victory to cut back on civil rights
and civil liberties. We’ve won many of them, and in the process, protected the
rights of millions of people to be treated with dignity and respect for their
basic constitutional rights.


In his first week in the Oval Office, President Trump issued
an executive order banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries
from entering the U.S. The ACLU quickly responded
by filing
and winning
the first legal challenge
to the Muslim ban that very weekend. A federal
court held an emergency hearing on a Saturday night, and enjoined its
implementation the day after he put the policy in place. When the first ban was
declared unconstitutional by the courts, Trump was forced to issue a revised
ban. When we and others successfully challenged that revised ban, he issued
still a third version. That, too, was struck down by the lower courts, although
the Supreme Court upheld it on a 5-4 vote along party lines. But that third
ban, while still a Muslim ban, was narrower than the first two, and we continue
to challenge its implementation in the courts. 


The lion’s share of our Trump-related work has focused on defending
immigrants, because that is where the president has directed his most virulent,
egregious and systematic attacks.

Trump has particularly targeted those seeking asylum, and
we’ve countered him at every point. His goal is to deter asylum applicants — regardless
of the validity of their claims to facing persecution at home. In what is
surely the cruelest of his many anti-asylum initiatives, he separated
children from their parents
, in hopes that this would discourage other
families from seeking refuge and safety here. We sued, obtained a ruling
barring the practice, and continue to press the administration to reunite the
thousands of families it so heartlessly separated. The ACLU has
helped reunite
more than two thousand families, but we keep discovering
more who were separated, and we won’t rest until we’ve reunited them all.


Trump has also locked up asylum applicants without hearings in
which they could show that they pose no flight risk or danger, and therefore
should be freed. In our view, the government cannot constitutionally detain
people absent a demonstrated reason for doing so, and where an asylum seeker
poses neither a flight risk nor a danger, she cannot constitutionally be
deprived of her liberty. Here, too, the
courts have blocked
the administration’s practice thanks to litigation by
us and our allies, requiring it to hold hearings and release those who pose no

The Trump administration also sought to change the legal
standard in order to make it more difficult to get asylum based on fears of
gang violence or domestic abuse in one’s home country. Again, we sued. And
again, a
federal court blocked
the administration from implementing that

Trump issued an executive order denying asylum to anyone who
entered the country other than at an official port of entry — even though the
asylum statute provides that asylum is available to all who face persecution at
home, regardless of how or where they entered the U.S. The courts blocked that
policy, too. He then sought to deny asylum to anyone who has traveled through
another country to reach the U.S. and has not applied for and been denied
asylum there. Again, the courts declared
the policy illegal
. The Supreme Court has temporarily stayed that
injunction pending the government’s appeal, but our legal challenge continues.


Trump also sought to deny legal protections to immigrants
from countries that either would not take their citizens back, or where
conditions were so bad that we had long afforded their nationals temporary
protected status, which allowed them to live and work among us. When Trump
sought to revoke their status en masse, the ACLU and
our allies sued
, and obtained injunctions barring the wholesale denial of
legal status to over 400,000 people.   

Most recently, Trump sought to expand so-called “expedited
removal,” a summary deportation process that short-circuits many of the
essential procedural protections generally afforded to immigrants in
deportation proceedings. These procedures have long been limited to persons
apprehended within 100 miles of the border and within two weeks of illegal
entry. Trump wants to expand exponentially the number of people who could be
swiftly deported under this process, to include anyone who had entered
illegally within the past two years, apprehended anywhere in the nation. Once
again, we sued
, and a federal judge blocked the initiative as illegal. 

Trump has attempted, virtually since the day he took office, to build a wall at the southern border. He repeatedly asked Congress for funding to build the wall, and repeatedly they refused. He went ahead and ordered the wall built anyway, declaring a national emergency and diverting funds appropriated for other purposes. We sued to stop the diversion of funds, and the lower courts blocked wall construction. The Supreme Court granted a temporary stay, but the challenge continues with an argument in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on November 12. 

We are not the only ones to see Trump in court. Other groups
have successfully challenged his revocation of protection for the approximately
800,000 so-called Dreamers, young undocumented people brought here by their
parents, to whom the Obama administration gave deferred action status, allowing
them to live, work, and go to school here. And the courts have also blocked
Trump’s efforts to expand the definition of persons deportable as “public
charges” to encompass immigrants who even briefly fall on hard times and need
virtually any sort of government assistance.

In short, judicial review has been critical to protecting
the basic human rights of tens of thousands of immigrants throughout this
country.  That that’s only the


As a candidate, Trump promised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision
protecting abortion access, and in response, seven states have enacted laws
banning abortion. We’ve
challenged five of the state bans
and obtained injunctions against each of
them; our ally, the Center for Reproductive Rights, has blocked the other two.
The states are appealing, but we will continue to defend this fundamental right. 


We also successfully blocked the Trump administration’s own ban
on abortion. This prohibition was applied selectively to some of the most vulnerable
women in this country: undocumented teens held in U.S. custody. When one such
teen, detained in Texas, learned that she was pregnant and sought to exercise
her constitutional right to an abortion, the
Trump administration refused to let her out of its facility
to go to the
clinic for the procedure. We sued in federal court, and won. We now have a
nationwide injunction against the practice. 

And most recently, a
federal judge blocked
President Trump’s so-called “conscience rule,” which
would have allowed  doctors, nurses, and
other health care providers nationwide to place their own views over the needs
of their patience and refuse to provide health care to which they object on
moral or religious grounds.  The court
held that the rule was arbitrary and rested on demonstrably false assertions by
the administration.


The president tried to rig the census, by adding a question
about citizenship that would have deterred tens of thousands of immigrants from
filling out the census form. The Census Bureau itself objected to the plan,
because they knew it would lead to undercounting of people in areas where
immigrants live, often urban areas that the administration sees as likely to
vote Democratic. The Constitution requires the census to count all people, not
just citizens. The undercounting would have translated into fewer
representatives in Congress for districts with large immigrant populations, and
less federal support for all the people who live there, citizen and noncitizen
alike. The initiative’s pre-textual rationale was initially drafted by a
Republican gerrymandering specialist who advised in a confidential memo that it
would advantage “Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.” We sued and won. In
June 2019, the Supreme Court affirmed our victory
, finding that the
administration’s justification for adding the question was pre-textual — or in
plain English, a lie. Trump bristled at the defeat, and only after his entire
legal team resigned over his direction to find a way to reinstitute the
question did he admit defeat and abandon the effort. 



Trump vowed to expand the detention of enemy combatants at
Guantanamo Bay, although he has not yet dared do so. His administration did lock
up a U.S. citizen as an “enemy combatant” in secret in Iraq, without access to
a lawyer, without a hearing, and without any criminal charges. The ACLU sued and
won. We first obtained an order requiring the administration to give him access
to our attorneys. Then, we challenged the legal basis for detaining a U.S.
citizen indefinitely without charges, and the
government gave in and released him
. The Trump administration has not held
a U.S. citizen as an “enemy combatant” since. 


Trump has also declared war on the LGBTQ community.  Here, too, we’ve challenged him every step of
the way. He
barred transgender people from serving in the military
, despite the
military’s finding that there was no basis for excluding them. We obtained an
injunction against the ban, and forced Trump to water it down, allowing
currently enlisted transgender soldiers to remain. But the revised ban still
bars entry to new transgender enlistees. That, too, was blocked, but the lower
court’s injunction was temporarily stayed by the Supreme Court pending the
government’s appeals, which continue.


The Trump administration also reversed the federal
government’s position on whether LGBTQ individuals are protected by federal
civil rights law from being fired or otherwise discriminated against because of
who they are. We won victories in the federal appeals courts, which ruled that
firing someone for being gay or transgender is a form of sex discrimination
forbidden by federal law. In October, we argued before the Supreme Court on
behalf of a gay man and a
transgender woman
who had been fired because of who they are. The Trump
administration argued the other side.


In many of these cases, the courts have served their
intended purpose: Protecting the vulnerable from abuses directed at them by the
president, upholding the rule of law, and stopping arbitrary and cruel
treatment of hundreds of thousands of people. We are proud to have led the
legal resistance, with full participation of many of our allies in the
immigrants’ rights, reproductive rights, and civil rights communities.


But we have not limited our response to the courts. We are
committed to defending liberty through all available means, and in a democracy,
the political process must also be an essential part of that defense. In the
wake of President Trump’s election, our membership soared from 400,000 to 1.8
million, and many of our supporters said they wanted not only to join and donate,
but also to take action. The ACLU launched People Power, a nationwide mobilization
platform that empowers ACLU volunteers to fight for liberty at the local level.
Over half a million people have since taken action with us as People Power volunteers — visiting a
legislator or town council, participating in a demonstration, or gathering
signatures and getting out the vote for ballot initiatives furthering civil
liberties, among others. They have encouraged local sheriffs and police chiefs to
adopt immigrant-friendly law enforcement policies; advocated for the expansion
of voting rights; gathered over 150,000 signatures for Amendment
4 in Florida
, which paved the way to re-enfranchise over 1.4 million previously
incarcerated people; and showed up at demonstrations at the border and in many
cities to protest anti-immigrant policies. Today, People Power volunteers are pressing
presidential candidates
of all parties to endorse critical civil liberties
initiatives, including reducing mass incarceration. Judge Learned Hand, one of
the great federal judges of all time, once said that “liberty lies in the
hearts of men and women.” We are deploying People Power to nurture that spirit
and spread it through direct action. 


We also engaged in the 2018 midterms in ways that were not
possible before. We spent more than $5 million and devoted thousands of hours
of volunteer and staff time to the fight in Florida for Amendment 4. We
supported similar voter access reform measures in Nevada and Michigan, both
of which passed
. We supported a successful referendum to end non-unanimous
jury verdicts
in Louisiana, a Reconstruction era practice that was designed
to nullify the votes of Black jurors. And we helped to defeat a transphobic ballot
measure in Massachusetts
. In key elections, we also did substantial voter
education and outreach to ensure that citizens were aware of the civil rights
and civil liberties stakes, reminding voters to “Vote like your rights depend
on it.” 

President Trump’s election posed immediate and
wide-ranging threats to civil liberties. The threats have grown, not
diminished, over time. But we have been there every step of the way, fighting to
defend the civil rights and civil liberties of all. Most of these legal fights
are ongoing, and we will almost certainly have to mount new legal challenges to
other unlawful, unconstitutional, or un-American policies. For nearly 100
years, the ACLU has steadfastly fought battles large and small, to secure
freedoms and advance equality, no matter who occupies the Oval Office. Great
challenges may lie ahead, but rest assured that, with your help, we stand ready
to fight for a more perfect union.

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