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February 18, 2022

“Alok Kumar has become much more than my attorney - he is my guardian angel.”

How the Work of a Pro Bono Attorney Helped a Father Reunite with his Children

By Stephanie Baez

Mr. Hernandez* had been detained at the Imperial Regional Detention Center for almost one year when he was connected with a pro bono attorney through the ABA Immigration Justice Project (IJP).  “The detention by ICE was by far the worst experience of my life,” said Mr. Hernandez, a Mexican national who had lived in the United States for approximately 30 years before he was detained.  When his mother fell ill, he returned to Mexico to visit her, and was detained crossing the border back into the United States.  Mr. Hernandez had full custody of his seventeen-, fifteen-, and eight-year-old children, who are U.S. Citizens, and when he was detained, they were placed in government care through Child Protective Services.  “I spent every hour in detention thinking of my children and dreaming of the day I could see them again, and we could finally be reunited.”  

When Mr. Hernandez connected with IJP, they were able to place his case with pro bono attorney Alok Kumar.  Mr. Kumar practiced transactional law while also performing as a professional opera singer.  He was in the process of transitioning his legal career to advocacy work, specifically immigration law, when he reached out to IJP to take on a pro bono matter.  He wanted a case that involved advocacy and a courtroom appearance, but he needed the matter to be resolved within two months so that he could go to New York for his opera career.  IJP told him about Mr. Hernandez’s case – which was scheduled for a bond hearing in eight business days, the week after Thanksgiving 2021.

“It was a bit of a whirlwind,” said Mr. Kumar.  “But the case and facts were so compelling.”  Mr. Kumar spoke with Mr. Hernandez by phone to learn more about his situation.  There was great urgency for Mr. Hernandez to be released from detention at his upcoming bond hearing because his children were subject to a dependency court hearing in January 2022, and Mr. Hernandez was facing the prospect of losing parental rights for his children.  Mr. Hernandez’s children were calling him regularly and pleading with him.  They did not understand why the separation was happening and would ask him to come back home.  Mr. Kumar felt the urgency.  “I realized I could have a real impact on this family.  This is what matters; this is why we do what we do.”

Mr. Kumar worked to prepare for the bond hearing, where he would need to convince the immigration judge that Mr. Hernandez was not a flight risk or danger to the community and should be released from detention on bond.  This was the first time Mr. Kumar worked on an immigration bond case.  He was paired with an expert mentor from the Immigration Justice Campaign (IJC) to help guide him through the process.  IJC works with a broad network of pro bono allies to serve detained individuals who would otherwise go unrepresented.  IJP and IJC partner to provide robust mentorship to IJP volunteers.  “My mentor was completely available to me.  I sent a barrage of emails, but she never made me feel like a squeaky wheel.”  Mr. Kumar prepared for the bond hearing over the Thanksgiving holiday.  He sent his mentor a draft brief on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and she got back to him with feedback and scheduled a call to discuss on Monday morning. “There was an incredible amount of support, which made the process accessible to someone like me – who was as green as they come.”

Mr. Hernandez “felt like a huge weight was lifted off [his] shoulders” when he learned he had a free attorney.  “Not only did I have my bond hearing coming up, but I also had to deal with the pressure of knowing my children were also in adoption proceedings.”  At the bond hearing, which was a remote telephonic hearing, the government attorney argued procedural issues that could have led to a continuance of the bond hearing.  Mr. Kumar was frank with the judge that this was his first time working on a bond case, and he was not as familiar with the ins-and-outs of procedure.  He told the judge “I came prepared to argue the merits of the bond case,” and the judge agreed to move forward with the hearing.  After listening to Mr. Kumar’s arguments, the judge granted Mr. Hernandez’s request for bond and set the bond payment at $1,500, which is the statutory de minimum amount.  IJP was able to connect Mr. Hernandez with another nonprofit that paid the bond, and within two days he was released from detention.  “My attorney was crucial for me to get my freedom.  He worked so hard on my case and I owe him so much.”

The first thing I did [upon release from detention] was to look for my children,” said Mr. Hernandez.  “I was able to reunite with them after such a long time.  It was an incredible experience.  They ran so fast towards me.  It was like we hugged for hours.”  Mr. Kumar described his pro bono experience as extremely rewarding.  “If I could cash in the number of blessings [Mr. Hernandez] has bestowed on me and my family, I wouldn’t have to bill for another day of work.”  He recommends pro bono work to other attorneys who want to make a difference, especially those who are considering an immigration practice.  “By taking the opportunity to have a pro bono case, I realized this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.  It was a fundamentally challenging and rewarding experience, and I was provided with the support to guide me through the experience.”  Mr. Kumar has remained in touch with Mr. Hernandez, who regularly sends pictures from his visits with his children.  Mr. Hernandez started the process to get custody back, and in the meantime gets to visit the children frequently.  “I treasure every second with them.”

Mr. Hernandez remains deeply grateful for the help that he received.  “I would like to thank the ABA Immigration Justice Project in San Diego and all the organizations and people involved that helped me get Alok Kumar as my attorney.  Without their efforts I would not be a free man today and I would not be able to be with my children. Unrepresented people like me are truly blessed to have people like all of you providing services for us.  From the bottom of my heart, thank you!”

*Name changed to protect confidentiality. 

How to Volunteer

If you are interested in getting involved as a pro bono attorney with the Immigration Justice Project or another initiative of the ABA Commission on Immigration, please sign up here to receive additional information about our opportunities and the resources available to support our volunteers. 

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.

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.