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Volunteers Fight The Fight; Families Reunite

A client of The Advocates For Human Rights reunited with her children after 7 years.

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 or email Alison at agriffith@advrights.org.


By Alison Griffith, Staff Attorney for the Refugee and Immigration Program at The Advocates For Human Rights

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals. 

The Sanctuary Movement Case, 1985

After 19 years of practicing corporate litigation with prominent law firms in New York City and Minneapolis, I was a tabula rasa in what turned out to be important topics for me. I had no knowledge of, or interest in, international human rights law in general or refugee and asylum law in particular. Nor did I have any knowledge of, or interest in, Latin America in general or El Salvador in particular. At the same time I was struggling with the question of how to integrate my newly re-acquired Christian faith with my professional life.

In 1985 all of this started to change.

My senior partner at Faegre & Benson asked me to provide legal counsel to the firm’s client, the American Lutheran Church. The problem: how should the ALC respond to the news that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service had sent undercover agents into worship services and Bible study meetings at Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in Arizona that were involved in the Sanctuary Movement?

As I soon discovered, that Movement was a loose association of Christian congregations that declared themselves sanctuaries or safe spaces for Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing their civil wars in the 1980s. The news about the “spies in the churches” was revealed by the U.S. Government in its prosecution of some of the Movement’s leaders for harboring and transporting illegal aliens, some of whom were later convicted of these charges.[1]

In the meantime, the ALC and my own church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), decided to join together to sue the U.S. Government over the “spies in the churches.” Eventually the U.S. District Court in Phoenix agreed with the churches that the First Amendment’s “freedom of religion” clause[2] provided protection against certain government investigations.

The court said that the churches “in the free exercise of their constitutionally protected religious activities, are protected against governmental intrusion in the absence of a good faith purpose for the subject investigation. The government is constitutionally precluded from unbridled and inappropriate covert activity which has as its purpose or objective the abridgment of the first amendment freedoms of those involved. Additionally, the participants involved in such investigations must adhere scrupulously to the scope and extent of the invitation to participate that may have been extended or offered to them.”[3]

I should add that the courtroom work in this case was done by two lawyers at the Phoenix firm of Lewis and Roca–Peter Baird[4] and Janet Napolitano.[5]

This case marked a turning point in my legal career as will be evident in my subsequent posts Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer  and My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989.

By Duane W. Krohnke, a retired lawyer, adjunct law professor, and volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights.

[1] One of the founders of the Sanctuary Movement was Rev. John Fife of Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church. He was one of those convicted in 1986 in the criminal case. Six years later he was elected the national leader (Moderator) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)..(Wikipedia, John Fife, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Fife.)

[2] “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion].” (U.S. Const., Amend. I.)

[3] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) v. U.S., 752 F. Supp. 1505, 1516 (D. Ariz. 1990), on remand from, 870 F.2d 518 (9th Cir. 1989).

[4] Peter Baird, http://www.lrlaw.com/files/Uploads/Documents/Baird%20Bio.pdf; Phoenix veteran attorney Peter Baird dies, Phoenix Bus. J.(Aug. 31, 2009), http://www.bizjournals.com/phoenix/stories/2009/08/31/daily19.html.

[5] Napolitano now, of course, is the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. (Wikipedia, Janet Napolitano, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janet_Napolitano.)