I sat in a small room with a simple table and folding chairs in the shadow of an international bridge in Juarez, Mexico. Looking around, it seemed like it might be a short visit on this, my last morning of a volunteer trip with CLINIC’s Estamos Unidos Asylum Project. My colleague and I had spent a few days visiting folks at shelters throughout the city subjected to the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP) or Remain in Mexico policy, helping with know your rights, consults, and preparing I-589 asylum applications.
It seemed like no one needed to talk to a lawyer that Friday morning. And then, a woman knocked on the door. “Are you a lawyer?” she asked. I said yes, and she sat down.
We began to discuss her asylum claim and her hearing scheduled four months away. And then she told me one of her adult daughters had court in just a few days and the judge told her she had to bring her completed asylum application. Her daughter wasn’t there.
Our CLINIC colleagues sprung into action and helped the mother call her daughter and get her to the office just in time. In about an hour, we sat with her, completed an I-589, and reviewed her pile of evidence.
I’ll never know if she’ll win asylum. Knowing the grant rates, her odds aren’t great, despite having a strong case that would likely win in some other immigration courts.
She didn’t have a weak case. She didn’t lack work ethic or the desire to pursue safety. She didn’t lack evidence or credibility.
The one thing she lacked was a lawyer.
I’ve thought a lot about this young woman since I returned from the border a few weeks ago. We have an access-to-justice crisis in America, and it is particularly acute in the immigration system. A system cannot be fair or just if it is so complex a pro se individual has virtually no chance of securing relief for which they are eligible.
In a couple of short days of volunteering with CLINIC’s Estamos Unidos Asylum Project, my colleague and I completed about 30 consults, helped advise dozens of asylum seekers of their rights, and prepared about 10 asylum applications.
I wondered before my trip if helping in limited ways 50 or even 100 people was worth it. It seemed like such a small drop in an ocean of need. Back home, at the non-profit where I work, we deal with the crush of having to say no and turn away those in need every day. Would it be worth it to travel to the border to help for just a few days?
Lawyers aren’t superheroes. We don’t literally step in front of a bullet and save anyone. My time at the border didn’t unravel MPP, or assure asylum to folks living in camps. But we do stand with power and privilege to help people navigate a complex and increasingly cruel system. The advocates and lawyers on the ground are doing incredible work to swim against an unjust stream day in and day out.
And what pro bono attorneys do – at the border or inside the U.S. – is help chip away at the injustice of our system. It means a human being gets the dignity of an attorney listening to them, processing their information, and peeling back the layers of an incomprehensible system so that they can make their own choices.
For 2020, I’m making a New Years resolution to engage in more pro bono work. There are naturalization clinics to staff, border assistance projects to plug into, translations, remote CFI and bond hearing assistance to support.
I’m busy, and it was hard to step away from my regular workload and my two small children to work at the border for a week. But it was worth it. I hope you’ll join me and commit to a new pro bono opportunity this year.
I don’t know what fate awaits the woman who rushed in to that humble office one December morning to fill out her asylum application mere days before her hearing. But I was able to find out that she walked into court at her next hearing and walked out with another court date instead of a removal order.
And that’s a victory I’ll hold with me for a long time.