Protesting the Travel Ban at LAX: Attorney Julia Trankiem Shares Her Volunteer Experience

On January 29, 2017, in response to Executive Order 13769—nicknamed the “travel ban”-- which suspended refugee arrivals and banned entry into the U.S. for 7 predominantly Muslim countries, and likely spurred by the previous day’s demonstrations at JFK airport, hundreds of protesters descended on LAX condemning the Order. 

That Sunday morning, chants like, “No Hate, No Fear. Immigrants Are Welcome Here,” rang out throughout the airport. There was marching, there were signs, there was singing, there were cries. Religious adherents, military veterans, descendants of immigrants, translators, lawyers, and politicians were present, demonstrating and lending support and services. 

One of the attorneys lending her services was Julia Trankiem. The daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, and an alumna of University of Michigan Law School, Julia practices litigation and employment law in Los Angeles. Friday evening, word of the travel ban reached her. Saturday, she spent time learning more about the ban and reaching out to her contact at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). By Sunday morning, she was driving towards LAX while listening to the news in tears. “I felt compelled,” she said, “I didn’t have a choice to just sit back.”

She headed to the short term parking lot, where she boarded a bus filled with protestors. After she arrived at the outside terminals, Trankiem saw a sign that read, “Hi, I’m an attorney.” The man behind the sign directed her towards The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf inside. Once she made it, she found too many attorneys and not enough work. Undeterred, she eventually made her way to the baggage claim area, where she was able to begin volunteering.

Trankiem spent much of her day as an intake coordinator. Since there were no direct flights from the banned countries, she looked up flights to guess where else travelers might be flying in from—layover cities like London, Dubai, and Frankfurt. Afterwards, she helped send other attorneys to the corresponding terminal to meet with travelers to see if they or their family members or loved ones were subject to the Executive Order. 

Detention times varied for flagged travellers, but some were detained longer than 6 hours, Julia says. There were rumors of immigration officials asking people to sign over their visas and conflicting stories of provisions, like food and water, having to be requested for detainees. There was confusion, and chaos, and disorganization, Julia says. There were also counter protesters with a different message. Julia heard accounts from attorneys that some people were told to, “Go back to where you came from.” The Los Angeles Times reported that there were about a dozen protesters in support of the travel ban. 

The overwhelming majority of protesters at LAX, however, were against the ban, and in support of immigrants and refugees. Julia describes a sea of demonstrators on the parking bridge, in the lot, and in baggage claim-- some of whom applauded when international travellers de-planed and picked up their luggage. Many also held signs with compassionate messages like, “Welcome To This Country.” She says there was a “vibrant energy” that was “unifying” on that Sunday at LAX. She and others shared the “common goal of trying to make a difference and  stand up for America’s core values.” Julia shares that she was thanked for her efforts, but left feeling thankful she was able to be of some assistance. She says that America blessed her family by allowing them into the U.S. after they fled the Vietnam War, and her volunteering was a small way to help repay the debt she feels she owes America. 

Between January 27, 2017and January 31, 2017, an estimated 60,000 visas were revoked. By January 31st, nearly 50 lawsuits had been filed contesting the constitutionality of Executive Order 13769. On February 3, 2017, just 5 days after the LAX protest, a temporary restraining order (State of Washington v. Trump) was placed on the Executive Order.  That restraining order was challenged and later upheld by United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on February 9, 2017. The litigation is ongoing.


Alexandrea Thornton is a journalist and producer living in NY. A graduate of UC Berkeley and Columbia University, she splits her time between California and New York. She's an avid reader and is penning her first non-fiction book.