AILA is pleased to welcome this blog post from long-time AILA member Careen Shannon, Senior Counsel (formerly Partner) at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, LLP, and the Executive Producer of an important new documentary, “Las Abogadas: Attorneys on the Front Lines of the Migrant Crisis.” AILA members in town for the Spring Conference have a chance to see “Las Abogadas” at the Washington, DC International Film Festival on Wednesday, April 26, at 6:00 p.m., with a second show on Friday, April 28, at 8:30 p.m.
When my friend Rebecca Eichler told me that a documentary filmmaker was making a movie about her experience providing legal advice to members of a Central American migrant caravan as it made its way north through Mexico in 2018, I said, “That’s nice.” Later, when film production stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she sent me a link to a trailer and encouraged me to take a look, and I promised to do so. But I was busy managing my remote work for the Fragomen law firm where I was then a partner, and I put all thoughts of the film aside.
Then one day, I watched the trailer, and I was hooked. Here was a story that needed to be told. It wasn’t just about Rebecca, but about tenacious lawyers – mostly women – who were dedicating their lives to defending the rights of asylum seekers, reuniting migrant families torn apart by the Trump administration’s cruel family separation policy, and fighting to uphold the rule of law at a time when the few existing safeguards for migrants seeking refuge from harm were being systematically dismantled.
I reached out to the film’s Director, Victoria Bruce, who I later learned only reluctantly took my call at Rebecca’s urging, since at that point she had run out of steam – and money – and was not sure she had it in her to complete the film. But we had a great conversation, we fed off of each other’s enthusiasm for the subject matter, and by the end of our talk she had invited me to sign on as the film’s Executive Producer.
Two years into the pandemic, I decided to step down as a partner at Fragomen and dedicate myself to ensuring that this important film got made. Fast forward to today, and Las Abogadas: Attorneys on the Front Lines of the Migrant Crisis is making the rounds of film festivals, winning awards, and garnering critical acclaim. Las Abogadas (which means “the women lawyers” in Spanish) follows a group of women immigration attorneys over a multi-year odyssey as the U.S. government under Trump upends every protection for those fleeing from persecution, violence and war. The film’s narrative continues into the first two years of the Biden administration, where great hope gives way to a despair my fellow AILA members undoubtedly share, that nothing fundamental had changed in U.S. immigration policy.
We see Rebecca and Charlene D’Cruz setting up a legal clinic in a Volkswagen van in the middle of five thousand desperate migrants. We see Charlene struggling to convince Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials to follow the law and grant a Title 42 exemption allowing a blind woman to enter the United States for medical treatment at a time when the border was functionally closed. We follow Mulu Alemayehu as she crosses the border to counsel African migrants stuck in Tijuana, and we watch Jodi Goodwin practicing street law – actually giving legal advice in the street, under the brutally hot Mexican sun, to families desperate to reach U.S. soil. Heroines all.
We also follow the stories of a handful of asylum seekers whom our “abogadas” attempt to help. Oscar fled Honduras to escape gang violence and government corruption. While living in the Matamoros refugee encampment, he helped Charlene identify vulnerable migrants who should be allowed to enter the United States. Gisselle left Honduras at age 20 to rejoin her mother, who had already fled to Mexico. In a tragic accident, both of Gisselle’s legs were severed at the hip when she fell from the top of the freight train known as La Bestia. Fleeing persecution in Cameroon, Raisa and Martine (not related) each flew to Ecuador, and then walked thousands of miles through several countries until they made it to Tijuana. And after Nancy denounced the assassin who killed her husband in El Salvador, she fled the country with her two children to protect them from reprisals.
Our mission in releasing this film is to raise awareness about the incredibly difficult journey asylum seekers undertake to save their lives or the lives of their loved ones, amplify the important work that immigration lawyers do, and encourage people to learn more about the plight of migrants and find ways that they can help. We’re not just screening at film festivals, but showing the film on high school, college and law school campuses and making it available to community-based organizations. We also hope to encourage more practicing lawyers in private firms to take on pro bono immigration cases.
Among the most meaningful experiences in my professional life were volunteering to help during the fight against family detention at Dilley and, even before that, at Artesia. The experience of being involved in the Las Abogadas project has been equally consequential, and I feel fortunate to have found this new way to educate people about our country’s fractured immigration system, while simultaneously sharing some stories of hope and redemption.
Attendees at the upcoming AILA Spring Conference will have a perfect opportunity to see the film at the Washington, DC International Film Festival on April 26 or April 28. Go here for tickets. And click here for more information about the film and to see the trailer that changed my life and the course of my career.