It’s simple. We feel. We’re human. And we can.
A personal reflection on the power of pro bono
OneJustice’s very own Lauren Roberts and Renée Schomp recently handled on a pro bono case with Pangea Legal Services that resulted in an eleven-year-old boy winning asylum and a shot at finally just being a kid. We asked Renée and Lauren to share their reflections in this guest blog post.
One young kid. Two attorneys. One life changed, forever.
Guest Blog Post by Lauren Roberts, Staff Attorney, & Renée Schomp, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow
Renee Schomp, Ivan & his mother, and Lauren Roberts on the steps of City Hall after Ivan provided public comments before the Board of Supervisors
A young woman recently gave us the longest hugs we’ve ever received. Her 11 year-old son, whom we’ll call Ivan*, was our pro bono client. He had just been granted asylum. She was hugging us because we had just found out that Ivan would no longer have to fear being returned to El Salvador. He was no longer facing a forced return to an uncertain future in a once-safe community now transformed by gang-enforced terror. Instead, he could—for the first time in his life—have a simple shot at just being a kid. And so believe us, we were hugging back!
We both became lawyers because we wanted to use our skills to “do good.” And while we spend our careers at OneJustice striving to do just that, there are still certain cases and clients who stand out — cases that really hit us hard. Ivan’s case is one of them.
Ivan was just a young child, fleeing terrible violence in his community
This summer saw a dramatic increase in the number of unaccompanied minors and families crossing the U.S. border from Central America. In 2014 alone, over 40,000 unaccompanied children have made the treacherous journey to seek safety and a more stable life in the U.S. This “surge” triggered significant changes in the process through which unaccompanied minors (technically termed Unaccompanied Alien Children or “UAC”) are moved through the immigration system. Special court dockets, commonly referred to as “rocket dockets” because of their expedited nature, were created to handle the surge. And immigration legal services organizations, already under-resourced, saw a sharp increase in demand for services.
Something about Ivan’s simple yet powerful words—his ability to tap into how he felt in an unvarnished way that so many adults cannot—struck us deeply
There is no right to counsel in immigration proceedings. So an Attorney of the Day program, staffed by volunteers and immigration attorneys from local legal aid organizations, ensures that children and parents have some representation and screening for relief on the day of their hearing. However, they are still left with the task of finding long-term representation. This is where the great need for pro bono attorneys comes in. With this backdrop, we decided it was time for us to step up and take on a pro bono case ourselves.
Ivan’s case was placed in the “rocket docket” for kids
Ivan in City Hall after telling his story before the Board of Supervisors
In 2013, Ivan crossed the border unaccompanied and was thus deemed a UAC. This allowed him to apply for asylum “affirmatively” through the Asylum Office rather than go to immigration court. Also, although he is not technically part of the unaccompanied minor surge, due to his UAC status and because his case was filed amidst the “surge crisis,” his asylum application was placed in the so-called “rocket docket” — as we quickly learned!
We met Ivan for the first time in August and from the beginning, his story struck us to the core, even though he often spoke in one-word replies. Something about Ivan’s simple yet powerful words—his ability to tap into how he felt in an unvarnished way that so many adults cannot—struck us deeply. So did the incredible, visceral relief that poured over his face, tears in his eyes, when he received asylum.
In the pro bono programs we run at OneJustice, we always tell volunteers that they don’t need specialized expertise in order to take on pro bono work — they just need to be able to connect with other people in a genuine way. Representing Ivan reinforced that belief for us. Neither of us had ever done an asylum case before — so when we decided to, we reached out to our colleagues at the fantastic San Francisco-based organization Pangea Legal Services. Within a week, we were meeting with them to go over intake notes from their initial consultation with Ivan. And within two weeks, we were sitting down to meet with Ivan and his parents for the very first time.
We met frequently with Ivan and his parents over the course of the next two months to complete his asylum application form and later his declaration and supporting evidence for the case, including letters from his therapist, teacher, family members in El Salvador, and his father — and extensive State Department and other news and academic reports on El Salvador’s horrific country conditions.
It’s simple: We feel. We’re human. And we can.
As first-timers working on an asylum case, we were impressed not only by Pangea’s mentorship but also by the willingness on the part of the Bay Area immigration legal community to help us out with our case. For example, attorneys at the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies revised our declaration at a moment’s notice — while attorneys over at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights walked us through our fear of calling USCIS for procedural calls about the case. All of this support from top-notch legal services nonprofits made it possible for us to take on an asylum case for a child under an expedited immigration processing system — and win.
Taking of Ivan’s case was a career turning point for both of us – his case expanded our expertise, but more importantly taught us a lot about what it means to be a an advocate and the power of being a pro bono attorney, using your legal skills to give back. In the moment that Ivan’s mother hugged us, we knew that anyone who could be there—witness her pure, exhausted, overwhelmed relief—would understand why we took on a pro bono asylum case for her child. It’s simple: We feel. We’re human. And we can.
And there are more kids like Ivan . . . they need us all to act!
The face of immigration policy is shifting as we write. With recent immigration action by President Obama, millions of undocumented people could be eligible for deferred action. And, the rocket docket continues. There’s a continual need for pro bono attorneys to step up and help increase access to free legal help. This need exists with respect to the many unaccompanied minors and families still being moved swiftly through the immigration courts, and at limited scope clinics to assist individuals with deferred action applications.
So we strongly encourage attorneys around the state to volunteer! An amazing network of legal aid nonprofits offer pro bono opportunities ranging from a three-hour clinic to full representation of a kid like Ivan. The benefits to the clients are breath-taking, and the personal satisfaction of being involved is tremendous. And there are lots more kids like Ivan who need our help – so you, too, could be on the receiving end of the longest hug of your life!
For more information on how to get involved with OneJustice’s immigration clinics through the Justice Bus Project and Bay Area Rural Justice Collaborative, visit www.one-justice.org.
* Client’s name changed for confidentiality.
Renée Schomp is an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow and leads Justice Bus trips throughout Northern California, bringing teams of volunteers to serve rural communities. Lauren Roberts manages the Bay Area Rural Justice Collaborative at OneJustice, engaging law firms and in-house counsel in a network of monthly mobile legal clinics. Together, they bring life-changing legal assistance to hundreds of rural Californians facing pressing legal problems.