Under the Trump administration, immigration law and policy have been at the forefront of our national consciousness. We have seen the images of attorneys on laptops clustered around the electrical outlets at airports in response to the travel bans, and videos of children pleading with authorities to allow their undocumented parents to stay in the country. But what is it like to be an attorney working to advocate on behalf of immigrants and refugees? I spoke with two attorneys to find out.
Isabelle Paine Thacker is an attorney with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) field office in Albany, NY. USCRI Albany is a resettlement agency that provides refugees placed in the Albany area with a variety of services related to housing, medical care, employment, and access to English classes. Throughout her career, Thacker has provided legal services to disadvantaged populations, such as domestic violence survivors and people living in poverty.
Q: Could you tell me about USCRI Albany and how you came to work for them?
A: USCRI has been around for over 100 years. It’s a network of agencies across the country serving refugees, immigrants, survivors of human trafficking and unaccompanied immigrant children. I was running the legal program at a domestic violence agency in Newton, and my family was moving to the Albany area. I wanted to do immigration work. The legal program here serves refugees and other immigrants to help them apply for citizenship. We also do a lot of green card applications [for permanent residency], family reunification applications, and travel documents for refugees.
Q: What is a typical day like for you?
A: As with most non-profits, every day is different. There are two hats that I wear: one is working with refugees and their cases, and the other is the citizenship project through the Office of New Americans. You really need to know your clients. You sit down with them, go through their questions, and lay out the issues and what the potential problems are and the length of time it’s going to take. Everything seems to be moving much more slowly now—people might have relief, but the resources haven’t been spent on processing the immigration applications so that people can get relief. It has been much more focused on enforcement now.
Q: Could you tell me about how the election and President Trump’s executive orders have affected both people’s feelings and perceptions of the immigration process, and the concrete legal changes?
A: I started in mid-September, so I have a very small pre-election period to judge it by. But I think the election was scary for our clients. Right after the election, and then once the executive orders came down, I got a lot of phone calls from people who were afraid, and didn’t know whether they should travel, or whether they would be able to get their family members here…
At first it was hard to know whether it was anecdotal or actually true, but there was a feeling of ramped up ICE presence and ICE detaining people right from the beginning. We had one client detained right before Thanksgiving and released right before Christmas. She was a US citizen, although we didn’t know that at the time, and neither did she. We had to prove it to the ICE agent [by tracking down documentation from her deceased mother.] The ICE agent said to us, “we had eight years of not being able to do our jobs, and now we’re going to do our jobs.” They feel more emboldened, I would say. Now the priorities [for detainment and removal] are so broad and many more people are being detained… The Albany office doesn’t work with undocumented people because we just don’t have the resources. So the people we’re seeing are documented, and they’re scared. For undocumented people, the fear is much greater.
Q: Tell me about your previous jobs and what led you to go into immigration.
A: The summer after my 1L year, I worked for Farmworker Legal Services of North Carolina, and I loved it. When I worked for Georgia Legal Services right after law school in the Georgia mountains, the Hispanic population was starting to grow as people moved in to do poultry processing. I did a little bit of immigration work then. I’ve always really liked immigration work. I love puzzles, and that’s what immigration is. I kept doing a little bit of immigration while focusing on state law issues, like domestic violence or housing. When I got to New York, I thought it would be easier to learn more immigration law than to start with the basics of New York state law.
I like working with my clients. Immigrants and refugees are so resilient and so determined. I don’t know that I would succeed as a refugee.
The language capacity that so many of my clients have—it’s amazing how many languages they speak! I speak Spanish and English, and the alphabet is the same in both.
Q: Did you always know you wanted to work for a non-profit or legal services provider, or did you ever consider working for a firm? What suggestions do you have for students who are currently making that decision?
A: If you’re at Harvard, you’re lucky if you want to work at a non-profit, because there is loan assistance after a certain number of years. I went to the University of North Carolina and was able to be in-state after a year, so I graduated with no debt. Graduating with no debt or knowing that your debt will be forgiven if you go to work for a non-profit is a great luxury. You can follow your heart, and follow what you want to do. [That said,] there are a lot of firms that do a lot of great pro bono work, and encourage it, and that’s needed too.
Sarah Tishler is a second-year associate with Shearman and Sterling in the litigation department of their New York office. Her practice focuses mainly on commercial litigation, securities litigation, and international arbitration. She became involved with immigration pro bono work at her firm, and she was one of the volunteer attorneys at JFK airport in the days following the first travel ban was imposed. Note: Ms. Tishler participated in this interview in a personal capacity, not on behalf of her firm.
Q: What drew you to doing immigration work pro bono?
A: I have been involved in pro bono work at my firm since I was a summer associate. My first pro bono matter that I worked on was a U-Visa, another immigration case.
After the executive order came out, the response from attorneys and other staff at our firm was so huge that our firm’s pro bono counsel created a separate listserv for people particularly interested in doing immigration pro bono work. Right now, there are over 100 people on that listserv. She’ll send us litigation updates for the various challenges to the ban that are happening around the country, as well as new pro bono projects that are immigration-related. Similarly to the way the response to the travel ban evolved, what started as a very reactive thing has evolved into a well-oiled machine.
Q: Do you know if similar efforts are underway at other firms as well?
A: Oh yes, I know for a fact there are. The major law firms are all involved in the response to the executive order. It was pretty cool to see all of our pro bono coordinators coordinating amongst themselves. I don’t have a very long historical perspective on the pro bono efforts of law firms, but it seems like a really big response from the private bar to this specific situation.
Q: What were your interests like in law school? Were you interested in doing immigration work or did you always know you wanted to work for a firm?
A: I was definitely attracted to working at a firm from the get-go. But I knew that part of your responsibility as an attorney is to seek out pro bono work for clients who wouldn’t normally be able to afford your services. So I always had these dual priorities in my mind.
I didn’t do immigration work in law school, but I did work for the International Organization for Migration in Geneva before law school. [Immigration] has always been an interest of mine because, from a personal perspective, all of my great grandparents were immigrants. My dad would tell me stories about how [my great grandmother] was the matriarch of the family, she spoke five different languages, and she was a passionate vegetarian on moral grounds. She was from the “old country,” from Ukraine, but here was this very powerful woman who showed up to the U.S. speaking five languages, determined to make a better life for her family. That story, and that mythology, speaks to me. It’s part of the reason why I’ve been able to achieve the things that I’ve achieved. [My family] took the risk to come to the United States to try to make a better life. It sounds a little corny, saying it out loud, but for me, that is part of the American Dream.
Q: Tell me more about the experience of volunteering at JFK—did you go with a group of lawyers from your firm? What was it like?
A: I actually went with a friend of mine from law school, Yoni Grossman-Boder. We saw all of the reports coming out of JFK and we had been following along on Twitter. Eventually we just made the decision to “suit up” and head over there to see how we could help. We ended up serving Customs and Border Control (“CBP”) with the order that had come down from the Eastern District of New York (“EDNY”) that had come down that same day.
Q: Did either of you have prior experience with habeas corpus petitions?
A: Oh no, we were the greenest of the green. Zero experience. [Laughs] When we got there, everybody was just reacting to a very chaotic and uncertain situation. So when we saw that there was a need to make CBP actually recognize this order that had come out from EDNY, we jumped at that opportunity. We convinced a gentleman working at one of the baggage storage areas to print out copies of the order for us. It was just one of those funny experiences that I think a lot of young lawyers have eventually—it’s the first time you realize that you might be in charge. Normally you have someone who’s supervising you and making sure you do things a certain way. But eventually you’ll have a scenario where you have to make those decisions. I think both Yoni and I had that experience while we were volunteering at JFK.
Q: As law students, we spend so much time analyzing legal doctrines that sometimes we forget just how powerful legal documents can be.
A: It’s easy to forget that the procedure is sometimes just as important as the substance. The procedure is not glamorous, it’s not exciting. It definitely very rarely comes with any glory. But this is one of those rare occasions where it actually was very exciting, and it did have an effect. It was just basic service of process. Prior to that point, we had been calling CBP because people were still being put on planes to be deported when the order came down. We were calling them saying, “this order has come down, have you seen it, do you have a copy?” And we got very cagey, uncertain answers, like “we’re aware of the order but we haven’t seen a copy, talk to Washington if you want a definite answer on this.” We realized that if they weren’t properly served, they might continue to say they hadn’t seen a copy.
Q: How quickly did things change after you gave them a copy of the court order?
A: Since we had so little information about what was happening on the other side [of security,] it is hard to say when the last person was put on a plane to be deported. But in terms of assuring people whose relatives were being detained, it made a huge difference. Now we had the power of the court behind us, and the power of the rule of law. That was very comforting for the people and the families who were affected by this.
Q: Can you tell me more about the volunteer attorneys who were there?
A: You had all the usual suspects: the non-profits who are involved in this stuff, the ACLU was there, people from the International Refugee Assistance Project were there, people from the mayor’s office and some of the local members of Congress and their staff showed up throughout the day. But when I got there, there was this huge pack of law students, who were helping draft and research, and basically pitching in however they could. I was so proud of them. I also thought it was extraordinary how many of the attorneys who were there were women. Apparently this was also the case across the country. I thought that was also really cool.
Q: What advice do you have for young attorneys working at firms who want to get more involved with pro bono work, or law students who are still deciding whether they should work at a non-profit or firm?
A: The only way you’re going to figure out what you like to do and what you don’t like to do is if you do it. So if you’re proactive with the mentors who you develop in law school and then if you’re proactive with you firm’s pro bono department, you can basically pick and choose what you want to do. If you’re at a smaller firm without a pro bono department, you can reach out to more senior associates and partners who share your interests.