Thousands of protesters objected to the detention of travelers with entry visas at JFK airport on Jan. 28, 2017. Photo: Shutterstock

The years of work that Becca Heller has put in as a human rights lawyer who works as director and co-founder of the Manhattan-based International Refugee Assistance Project has paid off in the form of a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

Heller is part of a group of 25 journalists, artists, scientists and others who were picked for the prestigious fellowship. The fellows receive $625,000 grants that are distributed over five years; Heller was the only practicing attorney to make the cut. The names of the nominators and their selection process are mostly kept secret.   

Heller, a Yale Law School graduate, co-founded IRAP in 2008 while she was still a 2L at Yale Law to assist Iraqi refugees displaced by the war to get resettled in the West. Since then the group, which is part of the Urban Justice Center, has grown into a vast network of volunteer attorneys and law students from 29 law schools and more than 100 law firms around the world.

One of IRAP’s goals has been to establish refugee law as its own practice area; immigration law often is concerned with rights and status of immigrants and refugees who are already inside a country, not those who are still in transit or being held at the border.  

“You can’t separate the journey from the destination,” Heller said. “It’s the same legal regime for both.”

IRAP was at the forefront of the legal battles erupting from the Trump administration’s travel bans; after the administration issued its first travel ban in January 2017, which restricted travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, there was chaos at major U.S. airports as border control agencies began holding travelers as they tried to re-enter the country.

IRAP sprang into action—it activated its network of volunteer attorneys to get to John F. Kennedy International Airport and other major ports of entry to provide legal aid to detained travelers.  

At the same time, IRAP joined up with the American Civil Liberties Union to fight back against the travel bans in the courts, including in federal court in Brooklyn, where U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly of the Eastern District of New York signed off on a Saturday night emergency stay to block the order.

In the months following the battle over the first travel ban, The New York Times dubbed Heller and IRAP a “young firebrand and her pro bono brigade.”

As for how she will spend her grant money, other than supporting IRAP’s work, Heller says her plans are “nothing very sexy”: she’s got a mortgage and, of course, student debt to pay off.

“I’ll probably try to squeeze in a tropical island,” Heller said.  


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