What’s it like to be an Advocate for Human Rights? An interview with Courtnie Gore
Courtnie Gore is an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow with The Advocates’ Refugee and Immigrant Program. Equal Justice Works is an organization that funds internships and programs for lots of different causes. The focus of Courtnie’s fellowship is immigration.
What are some of the benefits of working as a legal fellow?
The guidance – The learning curve is heavy in any practice. One beautiful thing about a fellowship is that you’re still somewhat of a student while still being a legal professional. You get training and you get to work with others in the community. Not to say you can make careless mistakes, but you can make procedural hiccups, and you can have a coach to guide you through that process.
What are the requirements of your fellowship?
Within my fellowship I have to represent a minimum of 30 children. Right now I have 34, and I think I have one more coming in next week. I started in September 2016. My fellowship is for a year, and it was extended through March 2018. For the fellowship you need 1700 hours of work in the year. The hours aren’t hard to meet if you’re engaged. The number of clients was at first intimidating. 20 percent of the fellowship can be dedicated to training; 80 percent has to be hands-on work. Within the fellowship, you are afforded the opportunity to attend numerous conferences and training sessions. Immigration is kind of an enigma because one day you walk into the office and federal procedures have completely changed. With the conferences, you get a firsthand playbook of what is soon to come. Panel members and experts at conferences will say “Here’s what you should work on because I work on the Hill and this bill is in the works..." I do have the opportunity to reach out to the other Equal Justice Works fellows for networking, but I have so much support here at The Advocates because I don’t really have to reach out much.
Tell us about your job. What are the core component and responsibilities?
I represent unaccompanied minors seeking asylum here in the United States. I represent children who have come here without their parents/guardians. I represent these children because they have experienced such terrible persecution that they cannot return to their home countries. These children are forgoing the opportunity to see their families, friends, or their countries of origin in applying for asylum. That is how grave their persecution is. I advocate for them in court and also help them with their asylum applications. I gather corroborating evidence – stories from other family members, country condition reports, documents of identification, to support their stories. I also assist them with their asylum interview. I get to litigate, practice, and of course use my legal writing and research skills to draft legal briefs and other documentation. I get to be a resource for them outside of their legal needs. These children to the U.S. come without financial and emotional stability. Thank God for the resources of The Advocates. I’ve been able to make referrals for dentists, doctors, therapists, school, ESL classes, and so many other things. I also serve as a resource for pro bono attorneys who take on these cases because most of our pro bono attorneys are not immigration attorneys. They’re just wonderful people who want to do something more. So I’m always in touch with pro bono attorneys. I also help clients who have other claims. Sometimes clients will come in with an asylum claim, but we’ll discover that they also have a U-visa claim, or a T-visa claim.
So I keep my clients informed about their rights, I connect pro bono attorneys, and I also help to conduct trainings and outreach Throughout Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Describe your typical day/ week at work.
I don’t have an answer for that. I come in and fill up my water bottle – that is the most consistent thing about a day at The Advocates. I love not having the same thing to do every day. I will make a schedule for myself, and all of that will be tossed out of the window. There will be a walk-in person and they have a filing deadline next week, or a need that is urgent. I really have to flexible and detailed to make sure that these needs are met. My typical day, depends on the need.
It’s all a matter of prioritizing. I do like to make sure that whatever a client needs – they have. However, it’s important to assess your capabilities and your time. Most of our clients’ needs are urgent and real, so it’s very important to prioritize. Checking in with my supervisor helps me to best allot my time and resources.
What kinds of problems do you face on a day-to-day basis?
There’s just not enough time in the day. I think this is true of any organization that serves a public interest need.
What do you like least about working at The Advocates?
That there aren’t enough hours in a day.
What do you like most about working in this field?
The kids. Oh my gosh. I attribute this to my height, but every time I meet with a client, they’re taller than they were at the previous meeting. Just seeing their progression, and how happy they are gives me such joy. They’re great people. All children deserve health and happiness, and they deserve a chance at life.
How old are your clients?
My youngest client is 6. My oldest is 17.
What is it like to work for this particular organization? How would you describe the culture at The Advocates?
I appreciate how much autonomy I have to do my work. No one micromanages you. Supervisors will check in, but you’re given a lot of freedom and chances to mold what ever it is you need to do to provide the best representation to your client.
It’s a welcoming environment. I have never been afraid to ask a question – and that’s not common in the legal field. Even though I’m a fellow, I feel like I am part of the team. We are all working together for the common good. There is no ego. Working with the Refugee & Immigrant Program has been amazing.
Why did you decide to work in this field and how did you get started? Tell us about your career path that led you to this job.
I always knew I wanted to do something in the legal field. When I was 14, I went with my church, Mt. Gilead Full Gospel International Ministries, to Uganda. At the time there was this huge civil war. I was charged with children’s’ ministry. So many children had been orphaned because of the war. So I was teaching, providing them with resources, and food. This was my first international trip. And after left I knew I wanted to change the world for the better. I didn’t know in what capacity at that time. Immigration is the current avenue I’m pursuing in order to change the world for the better.
What experience best prepared you for this job?
Missionary work, without a doubt best prepared me for this position. I will say that one of my mentors, Pastor Julian Dangerfield, took me aside one day when we were in Uganda. I was a teenager who had a bit of an attitude that day because things weren’t necessarily going the way I planned. He gave me some of the most important advice I’ve ever received: “Go with the flow and take the low road.” That moment for me was vital in my growth, both as a person and as professional. It’s not about you – you are serving people that have a need that is greater than you’ll ever imagine. It is not about being seen as the hero. You have to let go of your ego.
What do you wish you had known starting out in this field? What would you do differently if you were to do it again?
I wish I would have known how new government changes were going to impact the field of immigration, and the impact has been fear. I’ve had clients not show up to court because they think it’s better to have a low profile. We have one client whose mother is eligible for three claims of relief, but she doesn’t feel as though she should pursue them. I wish I would have prepared myself to answer some of those questions and to address those fears. But it’s a good time to be in this position, if you are passionate about the law and serving others.
Tell us about your career path.
My first internship ever was with the Catholic Charities – it was a summer internship and I was helping refugees get bus passes and furniture for their new apartments. This was my first introduction to refugee and immigration work.
In law school I started with a clerkship for the Honorable Margaret M. Marrinan. This experience was incredible. I learned that I wanted to be a litigator and I that wanted to be in court. My second-year summer of law school, I wanted to try international corporate law, so I worked for a firm in Africa. I loved the international work and being in Africa, but I still felt guilty. I was serving a country, but I still didn’t feel like I was helping the most vulnerable populations.
So I ended up coming back and working as a legal consultant with Mano a Mano, a non-profit, non-governmental organization, and then interned for the NAACP. There was, and still is, a huge issue with police brutality, so I collaborated with the President of the St. Paul chapter for students to know their rights. We created these programs to help them understand the constitution.
After law school I started working in business immigration I loved learning about business immigration, but still needed to do a little more to feel fulfilled. In that role, I saw this opportunity with the Advocates, and I jumped on it.
Would you recommend a law and/or a graduate in specific areas?
I think a law degree is helpful, but if you don’t have one that doesn’t mean you can’t help. There are people who assist and advocate for clients in many other ways. If you have time, resources, or a skill, please get involved because the need is indeed great.
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in getting involved?
Just do it. If you feel like it, jump in and help. You are needed.
Read Courtnie Gore’s reflections and the tips she has learned in her first year of working with clients who are unaccompanied minors in Preparing a Minor for an Asylum Interview: Five Challenges.