Volunteers Fight The Fight; Families Reunite
During this time of coronavirus, we are bombarded with news of things going wrong, with too many stories of loved ones passing away alone, retirement savings lost, and doctors feeling overwhelmed without the resources they need.
As immigration lawyers, we have a front row seat to the assaults on the rights of marginalized people when society is dealt a blow. Every day we field calls from detained immigrants whose health conditions make them extremely vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. We're learning of large employers endangering their immigrant workers by forcing them to stay on the job even when numbers of ill coworkers climb into the hundreds. Anxious clients and volunteers are asking what will happen to them now that Trump says he's going to "end immigration."
This pandemic has unquestionably had an impact on us all. A recent column in The New York Times highlighted a Kaiser Family Foundation poll which found that nearly half of all Americans - 45 percent - feel that the coronavirus has negatively affected their mental health.
I would be lying if I said I have not often felt dispirited by the news and the challenges facing the communities we serve. However, I have a daily dose of motivation to keep me running full speed ahead: the amazing volunteer attorneys, interpreters, and paralegals, who continue to fight tirelessly for our clients' rights and safety. Our volunteers live and work nationwide, and their practices range from large firm to solo. They handle every type of case, from filing asylum applications with USCIS to fighting for bonds for detained immigrants.
These are not people with endless time on their hands. I often hear kids playing in the background on calls with volunteers. Yesterday I got a call from a volunteer right after her work day wrapped up. She informed me she had seven minutes to ask her questions because that was how long her child was allowed to play on his iPad. We had a very efficient seven-minute call. Almost daily, I receive late-night emails from busy attorneys ensuring their pro bono clients receive timely responses to their questions. These attorneys do not come to this advocacy work feeling they know everything (or anything) about asylum law; most do not have immigration law backgrounds. They learn "on the job," supported by The Advocates' training and mentorship. They ask questions, they research, and they do excellent work representing their clients.
Legal representation matters, but immigrants facing deportation in Minnesota have a less than 50 percent chance of getting counsel. We know that 98.5 percent of families appearing without a lawyer were ordered deported. In contrast, when an attorney represented these families, the immigration judge allowed almost a quarter to stay in the country. The Advocates' attorneys have won close to 70 percent of their cases. It is only because these dedicated people do the daily, often unglamorous, and nearly always difficult work of ensuring access to justice that many individuals, families, and children have a chance to rebuild their lives after fleeing with nothing.
It is clear that this advocacy work is essential to the safety of asylum seekers. But does it help volunteers too? The author of The New York Times column cited not only the findings by the Kaiser Family Foundation; she also reminded us that those who find ways to make meaning and create hope are most able to experience resilience in times of crisis like this one.
I know from experience that it not easy to fight for justice as the pandemic rages. I was curious how our volunteers are staying motivated, so I asked them to tell us why they're volunteering. I hope you see in these reflections the kind of world you want to see.
"I volunteer for The Advocates to honor the humanity of others." - small firm attorney
"Every day we represent our asylum clients we help them take another step toward freedom and reunification with their families. One of the primary reasons I went to law school was to continue being a 'Man for Others,' a phrase instilled in me at my Jesuit high school. Working with The Advocates and wonderful clients carries on that tradition and hopefully inspires others to join our team." - mid-sized firm attorney
"The reason I volunteered was to have an opportunity to help our immigrant friends get out of ICE detention - which I believe is a serious human rights abuse against our fellow human beings. I have been so blessed in my life by the love I have been given by family and friends that I believe it is imperative for me to share this love with others and help them find a more peaceful and meaningful life." - retired attorney
"There is such a huge need for legal representation by asylum seekers living in Greater Minnesota, and The Advocates for Human Rights is uniquely positioned to provide state-wide assistance. I firmly believe that no matter where an individual came from or where in the U.S. they live now, everyone is entitled a supportive advocate network to help them find a more uplifting path." - solo attorney
"Given the unprecedented times we are living in, and the state of crisis, it was so rewarding to find out that USCIS has just granted our pro bono client's application for Special Immigration Juvenile Status!" -large firm attorney
"There is nothing like getting an asylum win!" - small firm attorney
"A few years ago I was looking to volunteer in a way that would make a significant difference in individual people's lives. I have always worked in public policy and never represented clients. I wanted that experience, that relationship with a client in a deeply meaningful way. I attended an Advocates training and left with a domestic violence case three years ago. Working with traumatized women can be troubling and saddening, however it is also gratifying and meaningful. My asylum work gives me perspective in my own life. My life has been enriched by learning of my clients' lives and advocating for them. In early March of this year, my first client's children came to the U.S. to live with her. There is no experience quite like being at an airport when a mother is reunited with her young children after years long separation! And it fuels me to keep on volunteering and trying to make a positive impact on other people's lives." - public policy attorney
"I have been increasingly distressed by the xenophobia and the racism that has surrounded the immigration discussion, and I decided then and there to volunteer [when our advocacy director Michele Garnett McKenzie asked for volunteers at a community event]. I've thought about it for years, but was hesitant because my legal practice was in tax and estate planning (I'm now retired). This has been an amazing opportunity to live out my values. I feel grateful for the support I've received from seasoned attorneys at The Advocates as I have worked on my very first asylum case." - retired attorney
And, lastly, a wonderful call to action from one of our brilliant immigration attorney mentors:
"I continue to volunteer because I know that now, more than ever, one hour of my time can potentially change someone's life. I've seen the quote, "strong alone, unstoppable together", and that's how I feel when I volunteer alongside other incredible attorneys." - small firm attorney
Our volunteers remind me that through the many challenges we face with this administration, and especially during this pandemic, we are still winning many of the fights. Perhaps most importantly, their stories remind me that the kind of world I want to see, a world where the justice one gets doesn't depend on the girth of one's wallet, is being built day by day, case by case, fight by fight, right here and right now, by asylum seekers and their advocates. Want to join this inspiring community? Visit our website.
By Alison Griffith, Staff Attorney for the Refugee and Immigration Program at The Advocates For Human Rights