Immigration Night at the Pro Bono Civil Clinic (Part 2)

Topics: Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Government, Law Firms, Leadership, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Pro Bono

rule of law

This is the conclusion of a blog post I had written about a Civil Clinic I started in Richmond, Va. more than 11 years ago. The clinic focused on immigration law, working mostly on unpaid wages and immigration cases. You can read the first part of this blog here.

The Civil Clinic, in many ways, was a victim of its own success. The pro bono lawyers continued to win judgments in favor of the unpaid workers and eventually word got out among the contactor community that if they didn’t pay their Hispanic workers, they would end up in court and it would cost them. The number of those types of cases dwindled to a few per month.

There continued to be high demand for pro bono immigration representation, however. We would typically get six to 10 cases per month. Of those, about half could be assisted with administrative filings; the other half required in-court assistance from our lawyers.

The in-court representation of immigrants was not easy. The Arlington Immigration Court was 100 miles away and initial hearings were held in the morning — meaning a court date required driving into the thick of the D.C. morning rush hour. The Court itself was something of a Dickensian nightmare: Confined, windowless courtrooms packed with frightened children, frantic women and sullen men.

The immigrations judges demonstrated great courtesy and patience with the respondents, but the law was so difficult to navigate that most walked out of court with an unhappy result. I noticed, however, that those with counsel fared much better. There were enough conflicting provisions in immigration law to keep options open for the respondents. With some research and perseverance, an immigration lawyer could get his client out of deportation proceedings.

So, I learned immigration law. As I had learned product liability, toxic exposure, biomechanics and epidemiology, I learned immigration law because I had to argue it. This put the appropriate pressure on me to identify my client’s strong points, know my adversary’s weak points and understand the pragmatic objectives of the Court.

Over the years, I was able to get dismissals or administrative closures in dozens of cases. I won some cases and lost some cases. Those I lost, I appealed, which gave me the opportunity to file briefs in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and even a Petition for Certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court. One of my losing cases was even reported in Law360. (Hooray!) Through it all, however, I was able to exercise real pro bono service in a complicated area of the law for those who had no ability, whatsoever, to pay for the services they received.


Over the years, I was able to get dismissals or administrative closures in dozens of cases. I won some cases and lost some cases. Those I lost, I appealed, which gave me the opportunity to file briefs in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and even a Petition for Certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court.


So, here I was on the third Monday in September at 7:20 p.m. at a scratched particleboard conference room table surrounded by two University of Richmond law students. Also present were Jacob, an immigration lawyer early in his practice, and a frightened family. The mother had crossed the border two years ago with her five-year-old daughter. The daughter was Americanized enough at this point to give me a high-five when she walked in. They were with the father who was here with legal status. The mother had joined him after she was threatened with rape and murder by the town gang leader in El Salvador.

She had an immigration hearing in three weeks. We discussed her options. She had been to see several immigration lawyers in other parts of the state. They offered vague promises and demanded $5,000 up front. Unfortunately, none of those lawyers saw fit to tell her that she had a viable asylum claim but it had to be filed within one year of arrival. She had missed the one-year deadline.

But, there had been a recent change in the law on the processing of asylum claims. Could we invoke the “change in law” doctrine, which would re-start the one-year clock for filing her asylum petition? Hard to say. One of the University of Richmond students volunteers to research it. (I envy the eager.)

We think through other ways around the one-year bar. Some promising and some not so much. We end the session with an agreement that I would represent the mother and daughter in the upcoming immigration hearing. We would meet beforehand and prepare an asylum petition to hand to the immigration judge at the hearing. Maybe the immigration judge would temporarily close the case while the Asylum Office reviews the petition… or maybe not.

On the way out the door the 5-year-old gives me another high-five.

So it goes… another night at the Immigration Clinic. A night fraught with problems, possibilities, real people and just enough hope to remind me that it is good to be a lawyer.

You can read a dozen articles a month about why it is important for lawyers to provide pro bono service: To give back, to insure that the legal system functions properly, to provide access to justice for those who cannot afford it. All of those reasons are true and valid. However, they seem to avoid the main issue, which, I believe, is this: Lawyers, at their best, want to help people. That is why we aspired to the practice in the first place and that is what helps us persevere during the difficult times. Pro bono lets you tap directly into that native impulse to help. It is powerful and its power outweighs the difficulty and sacrifice of pro bono service.