Veronica Walther was not planning to spend July 4 in an immigration detention center. However, when she learned she could volunteer to help detainees at Karnes County Residential Center — a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility outside San Antonio, Texas, holding women and children — she cleared her schedule, bought a plane ticket and reserved a hotel room and rental car.
She also took her semi-retired interpreter mom, who volunteered for attorneys who did not speak Spanish.
For a week, Walther assisted about 20 women mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — Central America’s troubled Northern Triangle — who had been detained after entering the US to seek asylum for themselves and their children because they said they feared for their lives in their home countries.
“All of them took enormous risks to get to the border to avoid being killed,” said Walther, who speaks fluent Spanish. “I didn’t meet a single woman who I thought was lying or even embellishing her story.”
Lost in the noise over the policies of the administration of US President Donald Trump at the border with Mexico is the difference between illegal immigrants and people seeking legal asylum.
Walther, who runs her own law firm in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is now organizing other attorneys to volunteer remotely, helping prepare legal briefs on behalf of asylum seekers, or to volunteer in the detention centers.
She is also handling pro bono the asylum case of a Honduran family she met at Karnes. They recently moved to Minneapolis with the help of a sponsor family after being released — Walther met them on her plane home.
Walther is one of a growing number of lawyers, interpreters and other professionals across the US claimed as members of Lawyers for Good Government (L4GG), a nonprofit whose founder has said it is nonpartisan, but progressive.
The group has said that 10 percent to 15 percent of its 125,000 Facebook followers are active members, by either volunteering or donating.
Little-known outside legal circles, the organization was launched as a Facebook group the day after Trump was elected. It screens attorneys such as Walther — who heads the group’s Minnesota chapter — and funnels them to legal services groups.
“L4GG has people who identify as independents, Republicans, Democrats — it’s all across the spectrum,” Walther said.
After the first Trump administration ban on travel to the US from Muslim-majority countries, the group directed hundreds of lawyers via the Internet to airports across the nation, coordinated volunteers with legal services groups and had international members hand out know-your-rights flyers in more than 20 languages at airports around the world.
The group also runs programs including prevention of voter suppression and environmental protection.
Adam Cohen, a Westchester, New York-based attorney who joined the group’s board of directors last year, said there are a lot of attorneys out there “dying to do something, not just donate money.”
However, showing up is not all that is needed — many practitioners have little or no experience in these arenas. Full-time civil rights advocates such as American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas executive director Terri Burke have welcomed the outpouring, with the caveat that volunteers need to be trained and managed to be effective.
There is a “huge need” for lawyers at the border, she said.
“I’ve asked our staff to research how we can connect these volunteer attorneys to these public defenders,” she added.
However, Burke stressed that donations remain critical.
“The money is still very important in order for us to do what we need to do,” Burke said. “It’s up to people who are willing to go down there and stand up for these people.”
While the ACLU has said it is hiring almost 100 new employees to supplement its 436 staffers, L4GG has only one employee: founder, president and executive director Traci Feit Love, a Harvard Law School graduate and former litigator for DLA Piper, one of the biggest law firms in the world. She and her board have been figuring out how to direct L4GG’s volunteers — a significant chunk of the 1.34 million attorneys in the US — to make them useful.
“For us, the question is really how can we connect this massive network of lawyers from all over the country,” said 41-year-old Love, who works out of her home in Atlanta, Georgia.
The answer, in part, is to work with established organizations in need of help that are not really set up to handle the recruitment, training and management of volunteers, she said.
L4GG’s latest big initiative is Project Corazon, which early this month started providing legal services to reunite immigrant families split up by the Trump administration. More than 40 major law firms have joined the effort to send lawyers for week-long stints, donate money and provide other resources.
“We are trying to take some of the burden off of the legal services nonprofits,” said Jackie Haberfeld, the head of pro bono counsel for the New York and Boston offices of Kirkland & Ellis, a member of the L4GG project.
“The most important thing about Project Corazon’s role, whether it is central or whether it is supportive, is that the immigrants and their children be represented,” Haberfeld said.
Kirkland & Ellis associates Giselle Sedano and Brandon Short earlier this month spent a week working with asylum seekers at ICE’s Port Isabel Service Processing Center, near the Texas-Mexico border.
Immigrants who get access to attorneys have a much better chance of understanding the complicated process, Short said.
Both lawyers said they worked with at least 30 mothers and fathers who had been separated from their children.
“The nature of our system is that it’s up to people who are willing to go down there and stand up for these people,” Short said. “Our laws provide for people to come into this country who are suffering.”
Changing perceptions about asylum seekers is crucial, Haberfeld said.
“There’s a lot of focus on the idea that these immigrants have somehow broken the law,” she said. “It’s essential to understand that our laws provide for people to come into this country who are suffering under certain circumstances and apply for asylum.”
Immigrants facing deportation have no right to an appointed lawyer if they are unable to afford one, or if no one volunteers.
Only 37 percent of potential deportees are represented — and just 14 percent of those in detention centers, according to the American Immigration Council.
“It’s not just family separation; there are all kinds of terrible detention stories,” Haberfeld said. “We hope that we’re building a cadre of people who will continue to do the work, even when this particular crisis has passed.”
For years, Republican and Democratic administrations typically did not prosecute asylum seekers who crossed the border, except if they had done it before and were deported, said Steven Schulman, the head of law firm Akin Gump’s pro bono counsel and a former president of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel.
The US is a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and in it “we have agreed not to penalize people for this misdemeanor,” he said.
Schulman contended that the Trump administration is “trying to rig the system against asylum seekers.”
Spokespersons for the US Department of Justice and ICE declined to comment.
Schulman said he sees L4GG as playing a “huge role” in supplying lawyers to help protect immigrants’ rights.
For lawyers who work for small firms that lack pro bono practices, L4GG “acts almost as a virtual pro bono counsel,” he said.
Walther, whose small firm serves primarily low-income Hispanic clients, said joining L4GG has a direct relationship to her practice.
“It was a relief thousands of people were banding together, because it meant we could actually do something instead of just sitting on the sidelines not knowing what steps to take,” she said.
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