Advocate for Refugees Wins ACS David Carliner Public Interest Award

Becca Heller of the International Refugee Assistance Project Honored for Mobilizing Attorneys on the Frontlines of Fight against President Trump’s Travel Ban


June 7, 2017


Linda Paris,

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The American Constitution Society is pleased to announce that the winner of the ACS David Carliner Public Interest Award is Becca Heller, director and co-founder of the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) at the Urban Justice Center. The award will be presented at the ACS National Convention’s June 8 Welcome Dinner and includes a $10,000 prize for Ms. Heller plus $2,500 for the International Refugee Assistance Project.

“By arranging legal representation for refugees and immigrants at airports across the country, Becca Heller stood up to Trump’s Muslim ban,” said Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society. “As the world watched the January chaos caused by the travel ban, Heller sprang into action, defending our constitutional values of liberty, equity and the rule of law.”

The Carliner Award is given annually to a mid-career public interest lawyer whose work best exemplifies David Carliner’s legacy of fearless, uncompromising and creative advocacy on behalf of marginalized people. Carliner, who began as an activist organizing against poll taxes, militarism and white supremacy in the 1930s and 1940s, became a pioneering immigration attorney who served as the founding chair of Global Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union–National Capital Area.

Since 2008, Becca Heller has gone from being a law student helping six families of Iraqi refugees she met during a summer break to being the leader of an organization providing free, comprehensive legal representation through every step of the registration, protection and resettlement process to refugees seeking safe resettlement. IRAP leverages a growing network of law students from 29 law school chapters and pro bono attorneys from over 75 international firms and corporations to work on the most urgent refugee cases, connecting places with excess legal resources to places with excess legal needs.

In late January, Becca and her team organized thousands of volunteer lawyers at airports around the country to defend the rights of incoming refugees and immigrants caught in the airport chaos created by President Trump’s travel ban. She led a coalition of lawyers and law students with the ACLU, NILC and Yale Law School to secure an emergency Temporary Restraining Order only 24 hours after the Executive Order, preventing the nationwide detention and deportation of any immigrants or refugees. Becca successfully demonstrated the discrimination behind the Executive Order and started a movement to fight back against the Order.

The judges for this year’s David Carliner Public Interest Award were: Nan Aron, executive director, Alliance for Justice; Deborah Carliner, attorney and past president, ACLU—National Capital Area; William Fletcher, judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit; Linda Greenhouse, lecturer in law, Yale Law School, Sarah Remes, board member, DC Action for Children; and Vince Warren, executive director, Center for Constitutional Rights.

The past recipients of the David Carliner Public Interest Award are: Blaine Bookey, Center For Gender and Refugee Studies, Zachary Norris, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights; Peter J. Wagner, Prison Policy Initiative; Kara Hartzler, Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc.; Janson Wu, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders; Tim Freilich, Immigrant Advocacy Program, Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, Va.; Cathleen Caron, Global Workers Justice Alliance; and Dori Rose Inda, Watsonville Law Center, Watsonville, Calif.

The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS) is the nation's leading progressive legal organization. In its 15th year, ACS has a nationwide network of lawyers, law students, scholars, judges, policymakers and other concerned individuals dedicated to making the law a force to improve lives of all people. For more information about the organization or to locate one of the more than 200 lawyer and law student chapters in 48 states, please visit