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On the Front Lines

By Anna Stolley Persky

October 25, 2016


In our November Washington Lawyer, D.C. Bar members spoke about their work to help refugees and asylum seekers around the world from Syria to El Salvador. 

Craig Fansler
Associate, Wiley Rein LLP
Washington, D.C.

I got involved in pro bono work through Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR Coalition), which represents immigrants in detention facilities.

I’ve represented immigrants being held at the Farmville Detention Center. People detained there can be held for a long time—six months or even a year and a half. Because it’s in a rural area, it can be hard for family to visit. I end up being a kind of conduit between the client and the family, telling them what is going on. It’s difficult when you think about how long your clients are cut off from their families.

I had one case where my client ended up being deported. He had come over illegally from Jamaica after his family was killed. He had been here for more than 15 years [and] had several children here. He was a good father, supporting his family both financially and emotionally. He had a baby who was born while he was in detention. He had never held that baby. That was tough.

When your cases are successful, it’s incredibly rewarding to know that you played a part in helping people start over in a new country, to help them be on a path of staying here long-term, without having to worry every day about being sent back to dangerous or life-threatening conditions.

Sandra Grossman
Managing Partner, Grossman Law, LLC
Bethesda, Maryland

My firm handles most immigration-related work. Some immigration cases, especially in the area of removal defense or when we handle children's cases, can end up being either pro bono or low bono.

Two years ago, as part of my pro bono work, I took a week-long trip to Artesia, New Mexico, with some other immigration attorneys. We went to a federal immigration detention center there, where women and children fleeing persecution in their own countries were being held. In many cases, they had been subjected to traumatic abuses and harm along their way to the United States.

I was incredibly shocked and disappointed in our government when I saw the conditions at the detention center. There were babies, toddlers, and children there—basically in jail. They had no school and insufficient medical treatment, and they were effectively prevented from gaining meaningful access to counsel. This detention center has since closed, but there are other similar centers elsewhere and the abuses continue.

During the time we were there, we gave presentations to the mothers so they knew their rights. We educated them about asylum law, and other defenses to removal, so they could be better prepared to answer questions during their asylum screening interviews and later in their hearings before immigration judges. We taught them how to gather evidence in support of their asylum and bond claims, and we helped them get in touch with their family.

I left that week feeling like we had made an impact on the lives of people who really needed help.

David J. Shaw
Associate, Pepper Hamilton LLP
Washington, D.C.

I’ve gotten my pro bono clients through Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), which helps match unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children with attorneys. My clients have, in general, been children fleeing countries because they have been threatened by gangs or were living in areas overtaken by gang violence.

The work I do involves applying for either asylum or special immigrant juvenile status, so they can remain in the U.S.

When you work on these cases, it can be hard because each of your clients has a sad or terrible story that you have to coax out of them. To do the best job you can as an attorney, you need to understand all the facts. It can be hard to hear their stories of domestic and gang violence…to hear the things they have endured.

You find that once you have built a rapport, you see that they are relieved to talk to somebody. This is another way you can help them: They can get this terrible story off their chest, and they can have someone who will listen to it and empathize.

Tiffany Mathiason
Associate Attorney, Geller Law Group, PLLC
Fairfax Virginia

My experience includes two cases involving refugees seeking asylum in this country. During law school, I worked on a case involving a man fleeing El Salvador. While studying for the Virginia Bar Exam, I took on another asylum case involving a girl, also from El Salvador. I got that case through KIND, which also provided me with a mentor to help guide me.

The cases I have had have been complex. It hasn’t been clear [whether] these people would be able to get asylum. My task has been to find ways to argue that these people’s life stories meet the criteria for asylum.

Taking an asylum case is a great opportunity for both young and old lawyers. It’s a chance to learn a new area of the law and to push yourself as a lawyer. You have to figure out what argument to make, and if there is precedent or law out there to strengthen your client’s case.

In the end, you push yourself even more because you are helping someone in a serious matter, with serious results.