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November 20, 2019 Did you Know?

Pro Bono at the Border: Lessons from a Week Volunteering with Asylum Applicants

By Kirsten Soto

In August 2018, I joined several attorneys from around the country in southern Texas for a week of a pro bono immigration work with the nonprofit organization Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). Our group was organized with the help of Lawyers for Good Government; we represented a small sample of the hundreds of attorneys who similarly had volunteered to assist asylum seekers being detained near the United States’ southern border. Under the expert guidance of RAICES’ attorneys, paralegals, and staff members, our group set out to the Karnes City Family Detention Center to assist detained fathers and their young sons in seeking asylum protections.

The work with the asylum seekers being held at Karnes was rewarding and emotionally draining. I worked with dozens of people who came to this country seeking asylum to escape extortion, gang violence, harassment, and murders. I met with men who suffered persecution for expressing their religious or political beliefs, and boys whose fathers brought them to the United States to escape forced recruitment threats by criminal organizations and gangs. I spoke with fathers who became the subject of ongoing extortion schemes because of their efforts to build small businesses in their rural and impoverished communities. Their stories all painted a picture of the often-terrifying conditions they hoped to escape by seeking legal protections in our country.

Seeking a Better Future

But what was most remarkable was that these men fled with their children not only seeking legal protections; they also wanted an opportunity to build a better future. They wanted the chance to work, to contribute to our nation of immigrants in their own unique way, and to create safety and stability for their families. Upon coming to the United States, many of these men experienced the trauma of being separated from their children during various stages of the asylum-seeking process. Each of the men I spoke to knew the exact number of days they had been separated from their sons—many endured this separation for months, and most had no information regarding where their children were held or what happened to them during the separation.

Despite all of this, the men and children I met were some of the kindest, most sincere people I have ever encountered. There were older children who helped to entertain younger kids while their fathers met with us; during many meetings with clients, I saw the children drawing on a chalkboard together and teaching each other the alphabet. There were families who wept with joy when they finally had the opportunity to have a phone call with relatives back home with whom they had not spoken since beginning their journey to the United States. The common thread through all of this was the compassion and generosity of spirit among these families despite their monumental, life-threatening challenges.

Each night, as we concluded our work and left the detention center, we caught glimpses of the purples, oranges, and reds of the south Texas sunsets. Each evening, it hit me that another day had passed, and I was not sure what the future held for these fathers and their children. I hope that I helped. I hope that things will get better.

Making a Difference

I wish I could conclude with a simple, happy story about the impact that I personally made on a particular case. But, as so often happens in the legal profession, the outcomes are not that simple or reached that fast. The asylum process is long and tedious, and, unfortunately, I do not know the final result of the cases I worked on. What I can say is this: I know that, as a whole, pro bono attorneys volunteering to help with these types of cases are making a difference. During our week at the detention center, we saw positive outcomes for several clients.

In the time since our pro bono trip concluded, I have remained in contact with several of the attorneys who volunteered during the trip. Their dedication and perseverance in seeking to use their training and experience in the field of law to make the world better impresses me every day. As I have reflected on the work we did during that week, I have been struck by the powerful impact that attorneys can make when they collectively unite around a common cause. It has shown me why pro bono work is so vital. This volunteer service not only allows you to step outside of your daily case work, it also allows you to work with other similar-minded and passionate attorneys to accomplish things that you as an individual may not have been able to do alone.

Several weeks after our trip, I stumbled on an old photograph I took during a study-abroad program in Germany. It was a quotation painted as a part of a mural on the remnants of the Berlin wall. It read: “Many small people who in many small places do many small things can alter face of the world.” Never has this quotation meant more to me than after my pro bono work at the border.

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By Kirsten Soto

Kirsten Soto is a senior associate and a member of the Insurance Coverage and Equine Law practice groups at Selman Breitman, LLP, in Los Angeles, California. She is the immediate past chair of the TIPS Automobile Litigation Committee and currently is a member of several TIPS committees including the Insurance Coverage Litigation Committee, Cybersecurity and Data Privacy Committee, CLE Board, Law Practice and Legal Department Management Task Force, and Revenue Enhancement Committee. She may be reached at [email protected].