February 7, 2017

Alma was in a race against the clock to come to the U.S. for vital eye surgery following the temporary halt of President Trump’s Executive Order barring entry by Iranian nationals.

A team of Willkie lawyers, working against the clock, succeeded last night in reuniting 12-year-old Iranian national, Alma Kashkooli, with her mother at JFK Airport. (A CNN video clip discussing the reunion can be found here.)

Alma has an incredibly rare genetic condition that causes severe complications to her vision, development and coordination. Alma’s mother, Fahimeh, is in the United States pursuing an LLM degree at Fordham Law School. Fahimeh had obtained for Alma an F-2 visa so that Alma could return to the United States for further treatment. Alma, together with her Iranian care-giver, were preparing to travel to New York from Tehran so that Alma could undergo urgent surgery at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh on January 31, 2017. All their plans were thrown into disarray, however, when President Trump signed an Executive Order barring entry to the United States by nationals from a range of targeted countries, including Iran, even those, like Alma, who had the requisite legal permission from the government to enter the country.

Because the Executive Order ban would prevent Alma from entering the United States for another four months, and Alma needed to undergo the surgery on her eyes immediately, her mother was faced with a parent’s worst nightmare – how she could, thousands of miles away from her daughter, find a way to get her daughter the medical care she so urgently needed.

Fahimeh informed administrators connected with Fordham Law’s LLM program of her dilemma. On January 31, Willkie Co-Chairman Gordon Caplan was having breakfast with Dean Matthew Diller, the Dean of Fordham Law School. Dean Diller mentioned Fahimeh’s circumstances to Gordon, who offered to get Willkie involved in order to see what could be done. Gordon was interviewed by Reuters and for Above the Law’s “Thinking Like a Lawyer” podcast about the case.

Willkie immediately mobilized a team of lawyers to assist Alma. Led by partner Rich Mancino and associates Shaimaa Hussein, Casey Donnelly and Hayley Tozeski, the Willkie team reached out to Fahimeh, learned all they could about Alma and her status, and began exploring legal, diplomatic, political and practical avenues to get Alma into the United States.

Apart from the Executive Order, Alma’s greatest enemy was time. Not only did Alma need to have her surgery done quickly in order to prevent permanent harm to her vision, the stay against the effectiveness of the Executive Order entered on January 27 by a federal court in Washington State might be dissolved by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals at any time. So Willkie and Fahimeh had to act fast and on several fronts. An urgent request for a waiver of the Executive Order was lodged with the Department of State on Alma’s behalf, while members of the Willkie team and Fahimeh’s Fordham Law support group sought the assistance of Governor Cuomo’s office, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

The Willkie team decided that the best course was to try to take advantage of the Washington federal court’s stay of the effectiveness of the Executive Order. The Willkie team therefore devised a plan – which Rich Mancino dubbed “Operation Alma” – to send Shaimaa Hussein and a friend of Fahimeh’s overnight to Istanbul, Turkey, while at the same time arranging for Alma and her father and care-giver to fly from Tehran to Istanbul. Meeting Alma at the Istanbul airport on February 6, Shaimaa got Alma on board the Turkish Airlines flight to New York City and accompanied Alma to the United States. Shaimaa was recognized by The American Lawyer as “Litigator of the Week” for her role in the matter; click here to read the profile.

Just minutes before the Ninth Circuit was going to announce whether it would act on the Administration’s request to lift the stay, Alma and Shaimaa landed at JFK. There, Fahimeh – joined by her team of Willkie lawyers, a host of supporters and friends from Fordham Law (including Dean Diller) and reporters and photographers from CNN, Reuters, the New York Post and other media outlets – waited anxiously to see if Alma would be allowed by the JFK Customs and Border Protection officials to enter the country. After ensuring that Fahimeh was safely in place at JFK, Rich set off for the Brooklyn Federal courthouse, armed with legal papers seeking emergency injunctive and declaratory relief in case the Government made any effort to delay or hinder Alma’s entry into the United States.

At 6:28 p.m., Shaimaa emailed the team that she and Alma were “coming out now.” What followed was a joyous and tearful reunion of mother and daughter.

While Alma slept at her mother’s Upper West Side apartment, Fahimeh, Richard and Shaimaa appeared today on Chris Cuomo’s CNN morning program. Fahimeh shared with Chris’s audience her thoughts and feelings about Alma’s ordeal, and expressed her gratitude for the outpouring of love and support she and Alma received from the Fordham Law community, Willkie and the many other people of every nationality who rallied to their side.

“Willkie is extremely proud of the extraordinary efforts of our team,” said firm Chairman Steven Gartner. “The firm is pleased to have assisted in reuniting Alma with her mother, and will continue to support them and other immigrants in need of legal assistance. Over the past 10 days, dozens of Willkie lawyers have been out at NY and DC airports contributing to a huge legal effort to help immigrants in need of legal assistance. These partners and associates are wonderful examples of our firm’s longstanding commitment to pro bono work, much of which takes place behind the scenes with little or no publicity. We are proud of all of our partners and associates who have rushed to assist these individuals in desperate circumstances.” 

The Willkie team included partners Gordon Caplan and Richard Mancino; counsel Amir Ghavi; associates Shaimaa Hussein, Casey Donnelly, Hayley Tozeski, Matthew Dollan, Christina Perpignano and Nicole Guntner; and Henry Kennedy, William McKay and Sera Idoko of Willkie’s Managing Attorney’s Office. In addition, the team included some 25 to 30 associates who traveled to the airport to assist others in need.