Immigration Detention Attorneys Offer Reasons to Celebrate National Pro Bono Week!

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Pro Bono Week 140x450You may already know that this week is the national celebration of Pro Bono Week, which lifts up the accomplishments of the lawyers who donate their time, expertise, and hard work to ensure that our justice system treats the poorest and most vulnerable people more fairly.

In honor of this week, I’m writing today to share an interview with three leaders who work pro bono. They are part of the critical Community Support Network of people who help make life more just for migrants caught in the U.S. immigration detention system. The following appeared in the October 13, 2013 edition of the e-newsletter Community Support News.

Unlike in the criminal justice system, immigration court does not provide legal representation at government expense. As a result, asylum seekers and other detainees are often left to navigate the complicated proceedings on their own. Confronted with a language barrier, cultural differences, and limited access to resources, the verdict is rarely in their favor. Through preparing clients and representing them during an asylum interview or immigration hearing, pro bono attorneys offer the support and expertise needed to ensure more individuals are able to safely remain in the United States.

This month, LIRS’s Access to Justice unit would like to thank Martha Koster, Steve Meili and Jaclyn Campoli for their commitment to donating their time and expertise to asylum seekers and immigration detainees. Access to Justice Program Fellow Julia Coffin conducted the interview. Please read on to learn more about their work.

Julia Coffin/Access to Justice (ATJ): Why did you first decide to pursue this field of work?

Jaclyn Campoli (JC): I started providing legal services to immigrants because I wanted to build relationships with clients and provide them with something concrete, such as immigration status, to make a positive difference in their lives. [Editor’s Note: Jaclyn is a Student Director/Certified Student Attorney at University of Minnesota Law School Immigration and Human Rights Clinic.]

Martha Koster (MK): I handled a pro bono political asylum case many years ago, when I was a young lawyer. I found it challenging and rewarding and over the years I have worked on several asylum cases as part of the pro bono program at Mintz Levin. When I became an Access to Justice Fellow last year, I knew that I wanted to do more of this work and approached The Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project (PAIR) to work with them.

Steve Meili (SM): I started representing asylum-seekers in the mid-1980′s when I taught in a clinical program at Georgetown University Law Center. I began pursuing it again when I came to the University of Minnesota Law School five years ago.

ATJ: What motivates or inspires you to continue advocating on behalf of asylum seekers and immigration detainees?

MK: Immigration work is very different from the litigation I’ve done in my law practice. Immigration law is complex, sometimes baffling. I like the work because it can be intellectually challenging as well as gratifying on a human level. Perhaps I am influenced by the fact that both of my parents were born abroad and immigrated as young children with their families. In any case, this work allows me to connect with people from vastly different cultures and life experiences, often horrifying experiences. It is a learning experience for me. Beyond that, and perhaps most importantly, it offers me the opportunity to help make a profound positive change in someone’s life, an amazing outcome that rarely, if ever, presents itself in most legal practice.

SM: The compelling nature of our clients’ stories, and the opportunity to help them obtain refuge from persecution. I also derive inspiration from the energy and commitment of the students I supervise at the U of M Law School.

JC: I am inspired by working with our asylum clients who have suffered greatly but are extremely motivated to begin a new chapter of their lives here in the U.S. I am driven to advocate on behalf of detainees because I want to ensure that all immigrants are aware of potential forms of relief available to them under the law.

ATJ: Please tell me about your favorite immigration related client and/or case.

SM: We represent a young man from Eastern Africa who hid in the pantry of his kitchen while government soldiers broke into the home and brutally murdered his entire family. He was 13 years old at the time. Through a mixture of personal courage and the help of others, he eventually made his way to the United States and was granted asylum earlier this year. He is full of life and hope, despite the unspeakable trauma that he suffered.

MK: A recent case involved a young man from Africa who was a member of a political opposition group and was threatened, kidnapped, tortured and rearrested by authorities in his country. Faced with likelihood of re-arrest and a treason charge simply for organizing peacefully against the government, he was forced to flee his country and leave his young wife of less than a year. He came to the US knowing no one, with no resources and somehow managed to make his way, despite dealing with the effects of the torture he endured. Because the wait for asylum interviews was so long here, he and I and a young colleague from my firm who worked with us went to the asylum office in Newark for an interview and he was later granted asylum.

JC: We represent a Sudanese woman who experienced female genital mutilation (FGM) as a young girl and fears retaliation from the government due to her political activities. She is motivated to improve her life in the U.S. despite her lack of resources here. Even with all of the hardships she has faced, she has not lost her spunk and persistence.

ATJ: What is the most interesting and/or valuable thing you have learned while working on a pro bono immigration case?

JC: I have learned that immigration status is just that: It’s a status. It does not define someone as a person.

MK: I’m not sure I can pick one of the many valuable things I’ve learned but one thing is patience in the face of a system only Kafka could love. I’ve been working, together with PAIR attorney Anita Sharma, on a gender identity case. Our client is from Central America and had been in detention since February, threatened with deportation. We filed a U-Visa since she survived a brutal assault here; we first met with refusal of the local police to help – or even speak to us. We were also preparing an asylum case. The client had just had a reasonable fear interview and was awaiting a finding when Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) suddenly put her on a plane, first to PA then to LA and was planning to return her to Central America in a few days. We filed a quick stay of deportation motion. While that was pending, after several calls within the agency, we were told that she would be returned to Boston after all. She was, after a couple of weeks of being shipped around the country and held in different places. Later the stay was allowed and she was released from detention. All of this seems inexplicable and entirely frustrating. Of course, the frustration that we feel as lawyers is nothing next to the terror and confusion our clients endure. Still, I am learning to be persistent, not give up and be steady in the face of what can seem a somewhat Byzantine system.

SM: There are two: The resiliency of the human spirit; the law can save lives.

I’m extremely grateful to Martha Koster, Steve Meili, and Jaclyn Campoli for the incredible work they’re doing, just as we are to all attorneys who generously donate their time. Thank you, and may you receive a lot of recognition for your efforts during this national week of celebration for pro bono heroes!

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