Rolando arrived in the United States in 2004, after fleeing from gang violence in his native Honduras. In 2020, he was pulled over by border patrol while driving with a friend in his car. Although Rolando had been living in the United States for over 17 years and had no criminal history, he was arrested and placed into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention at the Otay Mesa Detention Center (OMDC) in San Diego, California, because he was undocumented.
At the time Rolando was detained, OMDC was a hotbed for COVID-19, which infected more than 200 migrants in custody and left one migrant dead. Rolando, who does not speak English, was denied medical care because of the language barrier. “I was very sick and was having rashes on my skin, and there was nothing I could do. I was scared and did not know what was going to happen to me.” He was also separated from his two daughters, the younger of whom was only two years old. “I was . . . feeling extremely depressed and sad, and honestly, I was crying in bed every night at first.” Rolando’s situation was further complicated because he is illiterate and did not understand the legal system or what was happening in his case. “It was bad. I cannot read or write, so I often did not know what was really going on until I could find someone to explain it to me. Usually this would be another detainee.”
After approximately five months in detention, Rolando met Bonnie Fought, a pro bono lawyer who was assigned to his case through the American Bar Association’s Immigration Justice Project (IJP). IJP serves migrant adults detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center and promotes access to justice at all levels of the immigration and appellate court system by providing legal services to indigent individuals navigating immigration legal proceedings. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, IJP has placed 98 matters with pro bono attorneys on behalf of clients seeking release from OMDC.
IJP connected Rolando with Bonnie, the founder and past COO, CFO and General Counsel of Connectix Corporation, and a liaison from the ABA Board of Governors to the Commission on Immigration. As a transactional attorney, Bonnie had never litigated in court before, and had not previously worked on an immigration case. Bonnie volunteered to represent Rolando in a bond hearing before an immigration judge, seeking his release from ICE custody on bond. “This was my first experience representing someone in court,” said Bonnie. Despite volunteering in an unfamiliar area, Bonnie felt confident in her representation because she was supported by resources and mentorship throughout. “I was never overwhelmed, despite the gravity of what might happen to the client, because I had excellent mentorship,” she said.
Bonnie was mentored by the Immigration Justice Campaign (IJC). The Campaign works with a broad network of pro bono allies to serve detained individuals who would otherwise go unrepresented. IJP and the Campaign partner to provide robust mentorship to IJP volunteers. Because of the Campaign’s mentorship, “I never felt like I was on my own or that I had to guess about anything,” said Bonnie. “I was given a tremendous amount of resources both in terms of legal and procedural support. I had samples of motions and forms and I had the most amazing mentors.”
Bonnie described a “step-by-step” mentorship process. “They gave me an overview at the beginning, and then worked with me every step of the way. My mentors had weekly office hours when I could call in and talk one-on-one with a knowledgeable mentor [who was] always available and would walk me through my questions. They also had great online resources, and the combination of online resources and office hours was very effective for me.”
Rolando was thrilled to learn that IJP found a lawyer for his case. “I felt so happy just to know I had a lawyer; it was like a liberation. I had been going in front of judges by myself, and it honestly felt like going to a war that I knew I was going to lose. I can’t read, and I didn’t know how to act in front of a judge to win my case, so the best I could do was just try and convince them to give me more time.” Having a lawyer, Rolando said, changed everything. “My lawyer represented me so well. She defended me in front of the judge and I would never have won in court without her.”
Rolando and Bonnie worked together in the weeks leading up to his bond hearing, to prepare documents and arguments to convince the immigration judge that Rolando was not a flight risk or a danger to the community and should be released on bond. Due to the ongoing threat of the pandemic, all of the work in the case, including client preparation and the hearing, was performed virtually and by telephone. Because Rolando only spoke Spanish, IJP found a volunteer interpreter to help him communicate with his lawyer. “Having an interpreter made me feel like I had a partner,” Bonnie said. “I would absolutely take a case again with an interpreter.”
Their preparation paid off, and Rolando successfully obtained an order to release him from detention on bond. Bonnie said that Rolando was a credible witness during their court hearing, and that he remained composed when responding to false accusations from the ICE attorneys. “The judge thought [Rolando] was . . . honest and forthright in his responses, which was good because DHS spontaneously argued during the hearing that he was smuggling migrants from Mexico.” This was the same argument the ICE Trial Attorney made in the previous, unrelated case. Rolando said that he would not have been able to win bond without Bonnie’s representation. “I didn’t know how to defend myself,” he said. “Having a lawyer on my side meant I had someone to defend me against those accusations, someone who knew how to talk to the judge and to argue against the government lawyer who kept attacking me.”
Now that he is out of detention, Rolando has reunited with his family. “I have been able to spend time with my daughters. I take [my younger daughter] on bike rides. Sometimes I pick up my older daughter and drive her to work so we can talk and see each other.” He’s also taken up a new hobby: fishing. “I have started going fishing during the day because I can go outside now. I never catch anything, but it’s nice just to be outside.”
Bonnie was thrilled with the outcome of the case. “The most rewarding thing personally was hearing the difference in [Rolando’s] voice between when he was detained and when he was released. . . . He sounded lighter and happier because he could see his daughters and get needed medical treatment.” The experience was also professionally rewarding for Bonnie. “I found this experience rewarding because I could learn new legal skills and make a meaningful impact on someone’s life,” she said. “I would recommend attorneys in similar situations as myself to consider taking on a pro bono immigration case. I almost did not volunteer because I thought attorneys needed to have some knowledge of immigration law, but with the resources I was given, I was able to step in and feel like I was making a difference. If I can do it as a transactional lawyer, anyone can.”
Rolando knows how fortunate he was to have found an attorney. 80% of detained immigrants are not as lucky and are left to navigate a complex immigration system on their own, without speaking English and during a global pandemic. “I cannot thank the lawyer or the translator enough,” said Rolando. “I don’t know if I would have gotten to have my life back without my lawyer.”
How to Volunteer
If you are interested in volunteering with the ABA Commission on Immigration, please sign up here.
Volunteer opportunities are currently available through the COI’s three projects: Immigration Justice Project (IJP) in San Diego, California, the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) in Harlingen, Texas, and the Children’s Immigration Law Academy (CILA) in Houston, Texas.
IJP offers pro bono opportunities to assist adult migrants in California. Its mission is to promote access to justice at all levels of the immigration and appellate court system, by providing pro bono legal services to indigent individuals navigating immigration legal proceedings. IJP matches pro bono attorneys with detained and non-detained adult immigrants in removal defense cases (asylum, withholding, and cancellation of removal), custody petitions (bond and parole), representation before USCIS (asylum, U-Visas, VAWA, and SIJS), and appeals cases.
ProBAR empowers immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley border region, with a particular focus on the legal needs of detained migrant adults and unaccompanied migrant children. Through ProBAR, volunteers can provide representation in removal defense and asylum cases, bond and parole matters, and appeals cases.
CILA is an expert legal resource center building capacity for those working to advance the rights of children seeking protection through trainings, technical assistance, and collaboration. CILA hosts a platform, Pro Bono Matters for Children Facing Deportation, where organizations across the country post pro bono opportunities to help children and youth in immigration cases; view available opportunities and express interest on the platform. CILA also provides many free written resources and recorded webinars on its website including a Pro Bono Guide to help guide pro bono attorneys.
About the Author
Stephanie Baez is Pro Bono Counsel for the ABA Commission on Immigration. She works with the three COI projects—ProBAR, CILA and IJP—to recruit, train and mentor pro bono attorneys working on behalf of detained immigrants and asylum-seekers. Stephanie started her legal career as an associate at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP, where she worked on multiple immigration cases as a pro bono attorney, including an asylum matter in Harlingen, TX that was mentored by ProBAR. Stephanie also spent one year as the Fried Frank Fellow to Her Justice, Inc., a nonprofit that helps low-income women with family law and immigration matters. She was awarded the 2016 Commitment to Justice award for her dedication to Her Justice clients. Stephanie served as a judicial clerk in the Southern District of New York before moving to San Diego, where she engaged and mentored pro bono attorneys as a Supervising Attorney at the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program.