The day President Trump signed an executive order barring immigration from seven predominately Muslim countries was the day Victoria Slatton knew she'd have to quit her job.
As an asylum officer at the Department of Homeland Security, Slatton helped determine whether some of the world's most vulnerable people had the right to settle in the United States.
Now, she feared, she'd be expected to shut the door on far too many.
"I didn’t feel like my morals aligned with my old job anymore," she explains.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.
Discouraged but fired up, Slatton teamed up with best friend and law school classmate Michelle Stilwell to start a firm to help immigrants face down forces attempting to keep them out and send them home.
Stilwell proposed the idea — half-seriously — after discussions with her roommate, a non-citizen, who was worried about how members of her family would fare under the policies of the incoming administration.
"She basically told us, 'If you ever go into the immigration field, there’s a lot of people that could use you,'" Stilwell recalls.
The pair had discussed starting the firm prior to Slatton's decision to leave her job, but the "Muslim ban" put their plan into hyperdrive.
Stillwell (left) and Slatton. Photo by Jeff Ferrell.
With less than three post-law-school years between them, the partners gave themselves a crash course in running a business from scratch — setting up bookkeeping practices, planning a marketing strategy, and how to accept clients, which they began doing in April 2017.
Now, they help their clients — several of whom hail from the seven named countries — navigate the complex, ever-shifting challenges related to the ban.
With the uncertainty surrounding the Supreme Court's recent stay of the lower court decision pre-empting the ban, the pair are primarily advising those affected by it to be careful and stay up-to-date on the news to prepare for whatever happens next.
A detainee after his release at Los Angeles airport on Feb. 2. Photo by Mark Ralson/Getty Images.
"With a lot of people, no matter how watered down the travel ban has gotten or where it is now, I think the fear is if the Supreme Court rules in Trump’s favor, it’s kind of like, ‘What is the next step?'" Stillwell explains.
Slatton says she was surprised by the intensity of some of the backlash the firm has generated.
After a series of early news reports on the new business, the pair say they received a raft of racist, graphic, violent emails, including some death threats.
"As white women, you’re not used to that sort of hatred and animosity and racism just being flung at you," Stilwell says. "To think that our clients and other people, other immigrants in the world, are going through that on a daily basis, it was shocking.”
Nevertheless, they've been overwhelmed by support they've gotten, even from "very conservative" relatives.
Explaining their devotion to their work to their families, both report, has been an ongoing process involving many conversations and personal anecdotes about their clients to remind relatives that no two immigrant stories are the same.
Both feel they've made progress. Recently, Slatton's father relayed some of those stories to a group of his friends.
"Just to hear him defend not only me, but my clients, it was heartwarming," Slatton says.
Despite the cloud of the ban, Slatton and Stilwell are excited for what comes next.
The partners become most animated when talking about their successes — small and large — on behalf of their clients, like preparing a case for a man who was labor trafficked into the United States.
Or discovering that a recent assault victim suddenly qualified for a rock-solid humanitarian visa.
Or the veteran who they encouraged to apply for the green card he's owed.
In an era of uncertainty, this is how they're holding firm to their values.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.
"[It's] a lot of work, but really satisfying when you find a solution for them," Slatton says.
With each victory, they join the growing ranks of Americans who are making a difference by sticking their necks out for the most vulnerable — whether by making calls, sitting in their senators' offices, or starting a law firm.