While Northwest Immigrant Rights Project directly represents many clients in legal proceedings, the demand for services is greater than our staff can address. A client’s chance of avoiding removal from the U.S. is highly dependent on whether or not he or she has legal representation. As a result, NWIRP places great emphasis on training others, in order to stretch its resources as far as they can go. One of NWIRP’s great successes is our pro bono panel of attorneys, who are instrumental in sharing the workload of directly representing immigrants.
Attorney volunteers make a profound difference in the lives of their clients and have found the pro bono experience to be deeply rewarding for them as well. Without the hard work of this dedicated group, scores of individuals would be lost in an overwhelming bureaucracy and subject to removal from the country, separation from their family, and often a life of poverty and fear. We spoke with two pro bono attorneys about their experience representing clients for NWIRP.
Russell and Mark began taking pro bono cases for NWIRP in the spring of 2017. Russell had just retired from active practice when he received an email from Northwest Immigrant Rights Project regarding an increased threat to immigrant communities from the Trump Administration. Russell got in touch with Pro Bono Coordinating Attorney Jordan Wasserman and let him know he and his close friend Mark would like to help. Jordan recommended they take on an asylum case. Since that time, they’ve taken on additional asylum cases and have agreed to share more about their experience in our annual report.
Mark: Getting a successful result for a client is an incredibly gratifying experience. But the process of getting that successful result is incredibly challenging. Many people may not know that immigration officials are not currently scheduling asylum interviews so our clients are in a holding pattern, stuck in limbo due to this system. A huge surprise to me has been how we can’t seem to move our clients through this clogged system, which has been subject to political whims much more than our careers in front of court ever were.
Russell: I litigated for years at both state and federal court. I’m used to the pattern of state and federal court litigation – every case follows a pattern. Hearings are scheduled, then they take place, then you get a ruling within a reasonable time. However, in the asylum office, it seems like it’s a bit of a black hole. I can tell you that the very first case that we handled for NWIRP went very fast. Literally as I recall it, we started working on the case in May. We represented a woman who had self-petitioned a few years before. We got all her paperwork prepared with a brief by July of that year and sent an email to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) supervisor and said we were ready for an interview. That same day, we received a response for an interview 30 days down the road. Then, we got a result about two weeks after that interview. It made us feel like we were making a difference and moving things along quickly. However, it seems like that experience was an aberrational circumstance.
Mark: It’s kind of remarkable really. In the few years we’ve been doing this, things have really changed politically for the worse. The Trump Administration really jammed up the system to where it’s extremely difficult to move things forward for our clients.
Russell: The case that moved quickly was for a woman from Kenya who had survived terrible abuse. After her asylum claim was granted we took the next step and did the paperwork for her children who were still in Kenya to be reunited with her in the United States. That process took about a year. We submitted the paperwork and what was supposed to happen is DHS forwards it to the consulate in Nairobi where they interview the children. So we submitted it and a year or so goes by and all of a sudden one day I get an email from our client which had a picture of her hugging her kids at SeaTac airport. It was a really big deal.
Mark: We had another case where a woman had been treated horribly and kidnapped. We were able to help her get asylum in the United States, and when she arrived she had a big feast for us in Seattle with all of her relatives and friends. That was a lot of fun and very gratifying.
Russell: My perception is that the pandemic has further gummed up the asylum office. In several of our cases, we get everything ready to go and send an email to the asylum office and basically say ‘hey, we’re ready to go, give us an interview date’ and since COVID started I’ll receive these form responses back that say they don’t know when they’ll be able to respond.
Mark: During the pandemic I’ve probably had half a dozen meetings where I’ve met clients in a park in the open air. Sometimes in the wintertime. And I’m trying to explain their case documents and the wind is blowing and it’s been difficult for me and particularly for the client. The need to keep your distance and wear a mask can be awkward but is doable, of course. There is a client I’ve met with about a half a dozen times outside a Starbucks to help. But I’ve been fairly fortunate to avoid the rain at least!
Russell: We have one community member we are working with that has been in limbo for years. Their case was filed in 2016 and there is still no interview date set. What the system is putting this person through is absolutely terrible. And it makes the work difficult because we have no idea how long it will take to help someone.
Mark: Our problems as attorneys pale in comparison to what our clients face.
Russell: After we had our first couple of cases where we had great success, I was raving about doing pro bono work to people. I talked with a friend who had just retired and he sounded pumped up to volunteer. But I told him that part of the job is having to handle the paperwork related to each case. We’ve been able to partner with my previous firm to handle some of that work. If you don’t have personal access to that support, it is going to be a lot of extra work. It can be a roadblock for people–and it certainly prevented that friend from volunteering. It’s also a problem on the horizon for us as well. The secretary who has been working with us will be retiring in a year or so and it will impact our ability to do this work in the future.
Mark: I would sound the same notes. It’s incredibly gratifying but you have to have your own support staff. If you’re retiring and leaving a firm it could be an issue. There are so many written documents and copyediting. Overall it’s a huge plus and I’d highly recommend it. I’d encourage folks who are interested in trying to find a way.
Russell: One other reward has been learning a new area of law. I knew nothing about asylum law before I started working on these cases. So we studied up on some materials that Jordan referred us to. And it has been rewarding and interesting to study a lot of the country-conditions reports and articles from the countries our clients have come from, and to work that information into our arguments for why the clients qualify for asylum. I also have to give a shout-out to the pro bono doctors and other professionals who have assisted us by examining our clients and providing evidence in support of their asylum claims.