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Since Donald Trump became president, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has nearly tripled its membership, Billy Penn has learned.

The civil liberties organization has added just under 28,000 new Pennsylvania members from November 8 through today, according to ACLU of Pa. Director of Philanthropy John Frisbee. Prior to the election, membership consisted of 15,667 households.

More than half of the new subscribers — around 15,000 — joined between Jan. 28-31, the four-day period marked by airport protests and confusion surrounding the Jan. 27 executive order implementing a travel ban.

The day after the executive order, the ACLU filed suit in New York and won an injunction against the ban. The following day, it filed suit on behalf of the Syrian family turned away from PHL. As word of these actions spread, membership signups — which require a minimum $5-per-household donation — skyrocketed.

“On the 29th there were almost 250,000 donations to national,” said Frisbee. “The volume of new memberships broke the system.”

Frisbee clarified that by “breaking the system,” he didn’t mean to suggest any information or money was lost, but simply that the connection between the national website and its database was overloaded. It took some time to get all of the information transferred over and entered properly at the state level, hence the reason he didn’t have new membership numbers available until this week.

“It’s a strange position to be in,” Frisbee said. “Obviously I’d prefer the attention would come to us for different reasons, but in a moment where so many of the primary challenges are to basic constitutional rights, the support is heartening.”

As the local branch of the national organization founded in 1920 to protect free speech and other civil liberties via the US court system, the ACLU of Pa. has done “a ton of immigrant rights stuff” over the past 15 years, Frisbee noted. For example, last September, the organization sued the School District of Lancaster, alleging it was illegally refusing enrollment to older immigrant students who had limited proficiency in English (the case is still pending).

But since Trump’s election, and especially since his travel ban order came down, there’s been a new focus on the issue. Since a lot of what the ACLU does is reactive — filing lawsuits in response to perceived transgressions — “perhaps the preponderance of the work in the next three or four years will be in [the immigration] sector,” Frisbee said.

The new, larger membership will allow the ACLU to fight more battles on the local level.

“We’re going to be paying more attention to everything that happens in Harrisburg and also the municipalities,” Frisbee said. “If there is a bill or ordinance that threatens civil rights, we’re going to fight it before it becomes law.”

He stressed that other, smaller nonprofits and coalitions also need support. “There are many single-issue organizations — some of which we work with, like HIAS Pennsylvania — that also need donations,” he said.

Stay tuned for a guide to some of those local organizations, coming to Billy Penn this weekend.

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...