GIVING BACK: Pro Bono Immigration Work

Vol. 31 No. 2


Christina A. Fiflis practices immigration and nationality law in Denver and Boulder, Colorado. She is Chair of the ABA Commission on Immigration and Vice-Chair of the GPSolo Pro Bono and Public Service Committee.

Man looking at mural of American FlagWe found him a job. Found him a home. Got him medical care. Won him a green card. And even though we’d each been practicing law for more than 20 years, the experience can only be described by the cliché “baptism by fire.” We emerged, a bit bewildered, but nevertheless as true believers. At the end of the case, we resolutely reinvented our professional selves into full-time immigration lawyers.

This was my first of many pro bono immigration cases (assisted by a colleague who herself had never previously practiced in immigration law), and I’ve taken many more in the ten-plus years since. I have yet to arrive at a satisfactory definition of what is so good about doing pro bono work, in part because there is, quite candidly, a lot of self-satisfaction in it, and that just can’t be a sufficient definition. I do believe, as one of my clients explained quite simply, that you fight evil by going out and doing more good.

An Intriguing New World

I became interested in immigration law after interviewing lawyers nationwide to handle what appeared to be a minor administrative immigration matter for a business client who was deemed to be an “extraordinary ability alien” (read: rocket scientist). My practice until then had involved mostly institutional clients—property management firms and state-court receivers—and my client was certain that I could handle his immigration work just as well as his other work. Fortunately, I knew enough to recognize that he needed other counsel. But persuading him meant I had to find someone whose credentials were as extraordinary as his own. The more attorneys I consulted to find him representation, the more I learned about immigration law, and the more intrigued I became by the depth of interest these lawyers had in their area of practice. As my interest grew, so did my questions.

During this process, my law school classmate called to let me know she had decided to leave her job with a D.A.’s office, and while discussing her next steps, I told her about my search and the interest in immigration law it was developing. At some point I persuaded her to join me in auditing an immigration law class—if only to prevent me from being the oldest person in the classroom.

Our First Case

To put our classwork into practice, we volunteered to take a pro bono removal (deportation) case from a local immigrant advocacy group. We were assigned the case we ended up winning (see above), but a whole lot of unexpected work and learning happened in between.

First, I was stunned to learn that there was no pretrial discovery, no pretrial conferences, no settlement negotiations, no stipulations, and shockingly relaxed rules of evidence and procedure. Additionally, we learned during the course of case preparation that our client was suffering a mental disability for which he required medication (other than whatever was being administered at the detention facility, which we were prevented from knowing).

If this case were being handled today, our client would not have needed to rely on volunteer pro bono representation. In 2013 the U.S. Department of Justice issued Phase 1 of its “Plan to Provide Enhanced Procedural Protections to Unrepresented Detained Respondents with Mental Disorders,” under which the government provides qualified representatives to unrepresented, detained respondents where an immigration judge has found the respondent incompetent to represent him- or herself. Back then, however, our client was lumped in with all the other respondents in deportation hearings—none of whom had any right to appointed counsel. So his future depended on our efforts.

To win our case, we needed to persuade the court that the client would be able to work, that he would be able to find and pay for appropriate medical care, and that he would be in a supervised living arrangement. Arranging for all this required quite a bit of legwork on our part, including venturing out into the world of day labor to find him a job. Luckily for the client—and for us—he had some contact with other generous people who wanted to help. After winning the case, the client took us out for coffee at the cafeteria where we had found him his job.

Gifts of Joy, Gifts of Sadness

In the decade-plus since, I have received many wonderful, if sometimes strange, forms of appreciation, including gifts of clothing, artwork (including exquisitely detailed detention mail art), specially prepared meals, treatises authored by a client, professional cookbooks used by a client, and, of course, prayers and blessings in every language and denomination imaginable.

One of my most cherished gifts was delivered late on a cold Friday night, several hours after the client’s scheduled appointment was supposed to have begun, long after coveted dinner reservations had become abandoned to some lucky stranger, and while contemplating for the hundredth time the myriad attractions of retirement (read: quitting). My client came into the building to ensure that I was still waiting for him; he then went back out to the parking lot where I watched him hoist from the bed of his pickup truck a massive netted bag bulging with 25 pounds of huge yellow onions. He came up the steps to my conference room with the biggest smile I’d ever seen on him and reminded me that I had once mentioned that I liked to cook onion soup. (All 25 pounds of onions made their way eventually into some form of soup or another, either in my kitchen or in the soup kitchen at a nearby homeless shelter).

I have been compensated, as well, in less wonderful ways—in real heartache and despair at how disparately our immigration system functions from the rest of our legal system.

I worked on a case for a young man who came to America as an Iraqi refugee after having been shot when nine years old and having watched his father and uncle be assassinated on either side of him. I co-counseled a case involving a devoutly religious non-violent political activist who had overstayed his student visa and sought political asylum. He refused to board the commercial flight back to his home country, laying himself down on the jetway and proclaiming his preference to die on U.S. soil rather than being killed back home; he was subsequently medicated to unconsciousness and flown on a cargo plane out of the country.

I represented a young man who in his home country would routinely suffer punishment for being tardy to school, after running nine miles one way each morning; he would be locked out of the classroom and left in the blistering heat outside, and upon his return home he would be punished again by his parents with whippings.

I met with an older man who was jailed in a detention facility 900 miles away from his only surviving family member. He entered the cinder-block attorney meeting room sweating profusely and with swollen lips, which I mistakenly attributed to perhaps a game of basketball at rec; it turned out, rather, to be the result of sedation. He did not want legal help; he just wanted to show me the deep knife scars crisscrossing his torso and the nubs on his hands that used to be his thumbs, evidencing his torture in a foreign prison.

These types of cases are routine, not unique. There is little antidote for these experiences, other than to keep fighting on behalf of our clients, and for a better system. And, if we get lucky enough, now and then, we get handed a 25-pound bag of onions accompanied by a big smile from a client who thinks we made his life just a little bit easier.

Giving and Receiving

All immigration lawyers will acknowledge that we routinely witness the best and worst in all of us. And through our pro bono efforts we are hoping to contribute to, if not the species’ betterment, then that of our clients. Truth be told, however, it is the clients who are doing the giving back; it is our own betterment that absolutely results. Let’s hope it accrues elsewhere, too.


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