August 05, 2015 Dialogue

Pro Bono: From the Chair...

By Mary K. Ryan, Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service

For just a moment, as I wait for the interpreter to translate my question to our 17-year-old client from El Salvador, I reflect on how I ended up with this pro bono case. I’m a partner in a large Boston law firm primarily handling environmental litigation, not an immigration lawyer. When I took this case, my experience in immigration law was limited to one or two pro bono asylum cases many years ago. It has been a long time since I was the mentee and not the mentor. Yet, here I am doing everything I can to ensure that my young client’s voice is heard and his rights are represented.

For the past year I have had the honor of serving as co-chair of the ABA’s Working Group on Unaccompanied Minor Immigrants. The Working Group was formed in late August 2014 in response to the surge of unaccompanied children streaming across the U.S. border from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, fleeing from gang and cartel violence, abuse, and poverty. These children were either apprehended or turned themselves over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers. In either case they traveled to the United States seeking safety, protection, and often the ability to reunify with family members already living here. 

Both government and the non-profit sectors reacted swiftly by expanding the infrastructure available to serve these children, including the shelter system, the provision of legal services, and social work services. During a trip in July 2014 to visit Lackland Air Force Base—where 12,000 young immigrant children were being held and processed—and other youth shelters on the southwest border, ABA leaders were able to witness firsthand the pressing issues confronting these children, including the critical need for legal representation in immigration court and related proceedings. A year later, the humanitarian crisis on the border has become a due process crisis in our nation’s immigration courts, a system already significantly overburdened and under-resourced. 

The Working Group is a true collaborative effort bringing together the resources, expertise, leadership, and connections of the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, the Commission on Immigration, and multiple other ABA and external organizations. Its mission is to develop and implement a comprehensive response to the critical need for pro bono representation of children in removal proceedings. 

Over the past year Working Group members have worked to establish an infrastructure and process through which effective recruitment, training, and placement of pro bono attorneys is in place to ensure a successful pro bono experience for the client and the volunteers. This infrastructure includes the creation of a website with relevant and updated training and other resource material (see: www.ambar.org/ican), and an established procedure for referring attorneys to legal service providers who are willing and able to place cases of children with identified claims for relief.  The Working Group is also charged with assessing existing efforts and developing a strategy to increase coordination and legal capacity nationwide, thereby improving immigrant children’s access to justice and due process in immigration proceedings. Watching the pieces of the Working Group’s plans come together, I felt compelled to step up and take a case, just as I was urging others to do. 

Our Working Group is mindful that training is essential so that the programs supporting pro bono service know that their volunteers have at least some familiarity with the substantive and procedural challenges involved with their cases. This was certainly true in my case. Before I proceeded to volunteer, I wanted to make sure I understood at least the basics of what I would be expected to know once I was assigned a case. 

I started with the advantage of having learned a lot about the issues and existing resources from the many dedicated and expert members of the Working Group. I was encouraged to volunteer for Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a private non-profit that provides legal counsel to unaccompanied minors in the legal system in eight cities across the U.S. A major component of KIND’s service is training and mentoring pro bono attorneys. As luck would have it, Boston is a KIND city and many of the lawyers at my firm have worked on KIND cases, with successful results. I teamed up with Nutter associate Melanie Woodward to take on Juan’s case [not his real name], ably assisted by Spanish-speaking case assistant Michaela Martin who acts as our interpreter. 

My experience volunteering with KIND has been terrific. KIND held an initial in-person two- hour training for new volunteers, followed by a one-hour telephone training once we were assigned our case. KIND also offers its volunteers numerous opportunities to attend brief trainings on particular issues that arise frequently. I took advantage of the opportunity to attend the basic training a second time when it was given for some new volunteers—after all, if you remember back to law school, repetition is a great way to learn! KIND also assigns a mentor to support counsel with feedback on drafts, advice on strategy, and research, sample pleadings, and other guidance. Laurie Carafone and Elizabeth Badger, two of KIND’s experienced, skilled, and dedicated attorneys, have provided  invaluable mentoring  and support. And then I had a unique opportunity to attend the Annual Meeting of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) in Washington, D.C. this past June to represent the Working Group. Not only was I inspired by the extraordinary pro bono work done by so many AILA lawyers—particularly at the detention facilities where immigrant families, mostly mothers and children, were detained after apprehension or surrender at the border—but the CLE programs were very informative and helpful as to the specific issues raised by Juan’s case.  

Juan’s case isn’t over and I hope with all my heart for a good result. But in the meantime, I have learned so much, including:

  • Volunteering and dealing with the issues I had been discussing for months not only deepened my understanding of the substantive challenges pro bono lawyers face with these cases, but also deepened my appreciation for how important it is for more lawyers to step up and volunteer. 
  • I already knew from my Working Group experience that many unaccompanied children qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, providing them a pathway to lawful permanent residency and ultimate citizenship. State family and juvenile courts play a critical role in SIJS adjudication since Congress entrusted them to make these findings because of their expertise in matters concerning care and custody of children. In my case, Juan is seeking SIJ findings in state court. While I thought I had gained a fairly good understanding of the issues and obstacles lawyers were encountering in trying to obtain SIJS findings in state courts across the country, in typical lawyer fashion, my learning curve went up steeply when I took on direct responsibility for representing a client. 
  • One pro bono obstacle frequently mentioned is that immigration is a complex field of law, which is daunting for the novice. I can attest to that firsthand, but with the strong training and mentoring available from KIND it is hard, but possible to make an important difference for these children facing deportation. We all have to learn new areas of law from time-to-time in our paying practices and this is no different. At the end of the day, I am using the same interviewing, drafting, and analytical skills I use in every other matter I handle. 
  • The Working Group knows that not everyone will find it easy to get the mentoring and guidance KIND provides. But we are committed to finding mentors and developing unique ways to expand mentoring capacity to enable non-immigration lawyers to successfully help these vulnerable children.

I am grateful for the opportunity to help Juan and his mother achieve their dream of staying together in Boston, where Juan doesn’t face danger every day, can go to school, and can build a better future.  Roughly 70% of the unaccompanied children in immigration removal proceedings have no lawyer to represent them.  Studies have shown that children without lawyers are five times more likely to be deported back to the countries they fled, and for good reason. No matter how strong a case a child may have, and even with some help from a relative or friend, how can a child who may not speak English deal with issues such as whether to file a custody, guardianship, or equity complaint to obtain the state court jurisdiction necessary for SIJS predicate findings? These are the types of issues that we lawyers are trained to deal with, even if they aren’t the exact same issues we deal with every day. 

I urge you to take on a case and make a difference for one child. You can sign up at the web page for the Immigration Child Advocacy Network or ICAN at www.americanbar.org/ican so you, too, can say, “I CAN help a child today.”