You Will Be Transformed: How Pro Bono Work Impacted Our Lives

By Haiyun Damon-Feng and William (Bill) Abrams, NWIRP Pro Bono Volunteer Attorneys

Haiyun: I’ve been doing immigration pro bono work since law school but was encouraged to take on a case through NWIRP after speaking with my colleague and friend, Bill Abrams. We reached out to NWIRP’s pro bono coordinating attorney in the Tacoma office, Bill Schwarz, who told us he was trying to place a case for  a young man from Nicaragua who was seeking asylum. His name was Marcos and he was being held at the Tacoma ICE detention center. Bill let us know that Marcos needed representation right away since he had his final immigration court hearing in just three weeks. 

We headed to the detention center to meet this young man and were immediately struck by how much he had been through on his journey. 

Bill: Haiyun and I immediately were overcome by both Marcos’s story and his courage. Marcos had to escape his home in the dead of night because his life was in grave danger due to his stand against the corrupt government. Marcos persevered through months of traveling through El Salvador and Guatemala and then making his way into Mexico. He had no money, family or friends throughout this journey but he persisted with resolve and determination. He came to the United States because of what this country is supposed to represent. Then he suddenly finds himself in detention. It was very striking to me. 

Haiyun: At Marcos’s hearing later that month, we were shocked that the prosecuting attorney told the court that they wanted Marcos deported to Mexico. They had not raised the possibility of deporting Marcos to Mexico at any time before the hearing, and Marcos isn’t a Mexican national or citizen.

Bill: In a just world Marcos would quite clearly be entitled to asylum. But we don’t live in that world. The government argued that Marcos was offered some form of protection by the Mexican government, even thought it was unclear as to what Mexico actually provided to him. Complicating matters, when Marcos got to the United States border in San Ysidro the border patrol agent erroneously stated in the paperwork that Marcos was offered asylum in Mexico and had Marcos sign documents that he didn’t understand. The judge ruled against us so we immediately began working on an appeal.

Haiyun: Meanwhile Marcos had to remain in detention. During this time, he was struggling health wise. And then COVID happened. He had already expressed that he had respiratory issues and so we followed up with ICE trying to get him parole. Asylum seekers like Marcos who ask for asylum at a border port of entry are subject to mandatory immigration detention, and parole is their only chance at release. Then he started having horrible dental issues and was in intolerable pain. He would crush up ibuprofen and rub them on the spots that hurt because nothing else provided even temporary relief.

Bill: Marcos was not getting enough to eat. He couldn’t get adequate medical attention. He couldn’t get dental attention and was in great pain without any prospect of relief. He was terribly worried about COVID-19.

Haiyun: We couldn’t let Marcos go on suffering like that. We sent a letter to ICE that made it very clear that this was an emergency health issue that couldn’t be taken care of while he was in custody, and that we were going to do whatever we needed to do to get him out. We found a dentist and an oral surgeon who agreed to treat Marcos for free if he was released on parole. He was released within a week of submitting that letter. 

I went to pick him up. I wanted to make sure everything went smoothly. We both had masks on due to COVID, but he was smiling so widely I could still see it even underneath the mask. 

He had been in detention for such a long time. Detention is horrible for everyone. But because Marcos cares so much about the ideals of democracy and freedom – that was the basis for his persecution in Nicaragua and why he needed asylum in the first place – I think it was especially difficult for him to be locked up. The day he was released was a sunny one. On the drive to his new home I opened the sunroof. Marcos said he was hungry and wanted fried chicken. So, we went to Popeyes. I asked what he wanted to listen to, and he said “Michael Bolton.” So, we listened to Michael Bolton. As we were driving on I-5 towards Seattle, I pointed out the buildings, the Space Needle and the stadium. We saw the mountains and the water. 

He was happy. But also, there was a lot of gravity. He kept saying “I can’t believe it, it’s been so long.” Sometimes we sang along to Michael Bolton’s greatest hits. Sometimes we were quiet.

Bill: I was thrilled to see the community come together in support of Marcos. After Marcos made it to his host family, so many people brought food over. His hosts, Steve and Laurie, had made a great space for him. Marcos didn’t have any pals around the Seattle area but we got him connected with his family. People just really came together, there was great generosity.

Haiyun: While Marcos’s case is still ongoing, he thankfully now has work authorization. He is living on his own and is enjoying being independent again. It’s hard because the economy is disrupted, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, and it’s expensive in Seattle, but he knows he has a strong support system here. And thankfully he is no longer detained. 

Being a pro bono attorney is so meaningful and absolutely worth doing. Marcos should have been granted asylum, and we’re still fighting for that. Without counsel though, he would not be here today. The government wanted to deport him, with no notice, to a country where he’s not from, and without someone to help him navigate the system, file appeals and fight back, there’s no way Marcos would have been protected as he should be under the law. Attorneys need to stand alongside immigrant community members. These are real lives that are at stake. 

Bill: Pro bono work is transformative. The way you’ll see the world will be transformed. And the work is absolutely necessary. Because if lawyers don’t help, then who is going to? It’s one person at a time, one case at a time. Every person counts. People like Marcos deserve dignity and respect, and deserve a voice. I’m very grateful to NWIRP for giving me the opportunity to take this case. I have the highest respect for the organization. 

*We have used a pseudonym to protect this client’s identity