The man from El Salvador told a chilling story: He had been assaulted by a gang and tried to report the crime to police. Instead, gang members accosted him again, holding up a cellphone that was on speaker so he could hear the threat directly.
“I will hunt down your family one by one if you go to police,” attorney Alyssa Domzal said he told her.
Hounded no matter where he went and fearful he could bring harm to his loved ones, the man said he decided to leave his country entirely. He traveled through Mexico and crossed into the United States near El Paso, Texas, where he was quickly apprehended and ultimately sent to a detention center in Folkston, Ga. There, he would meet Domzal, far from her own home in Baltimore — and her work as a corporate attorney specializing in commercial real estate transactions.
Domzal and a fellow attorney at Ballard Spahr, Michelle McGeogh, are among hundreds of lawyers across the country who have taken time away from their paid work to travel to remote detention centers and represent undocumented immigrants — helping them seek asylum, for example, or release on bond or parole while awaiting rulings on whether they can stay in the United States or face deportation to the countries they fled.
With the Trump administration clamping down on immigration on multiple fronts — separating children from parents on the border and resettling far fewer refugees than in the past — the number of detainees is soaring. In fiscal 2018, according to a recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement report, 396,448 people were booked into detention facilities, a more than 22 percent increase over the previous year.
Many in the legal profession have been motivated to take on the cause of those seeking entry to the U.S., with some of the country’s most prominent law firms filing suits to challenge Trump’s policies. Lawyers are donating their time, which might otherwise cost paying clients hundreds of dollars an hour, to represent immigrants.
“I became interested because the policy of family separation was particularly troubling to me because I’m the mother of two, and just imagining that policy playing out in my own life,” said McGeogh, a litigator in real estate and employment cases.
McGeogh and Domzal are back at work in Baltimore now, in 18th-floor offices overlooking the Inner Harbor, but they haven’t left their volunteer work behind. Domzal and four Ballard Spahr attorneys from offices elsewhere in the country continue to work on an asylum application for the man from El Salvador, whom they worked with the week of Oct. 29, that they plan to submit in February. And both she and McGeogh, who volunteered at a facility in Lumpkin, Ga., the week of Nov. 5, want to return in the coming year to further assist detainees.
“I remember when I came back from Georgia, Monday morning, parking in the Gallery garage, and having this sense that my work here is important,” McGeogh said, “but also knowing that what was going on at the time in Lumpkin was impactful.
“I thought, I should be there,” she said. “I need to go back there.”
Even working just a single week proved to be an intense experience, the lawyers said.
Domzal recalls seeing hundreds of men, wearing color-coded uniforms of blue for lower-risk detainees with minor or no criminal records and orange for those deemed higher-risk.
“The vast majority are in blue,” she said, “and yet they’re here in what is essentially a prison.”
While interpreters are available, Domzal speaks Spanish from having spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru.
“There’s a rapport and emotional connection when you’re talking to someone in their native language that is really powerful,” she said.
The pro bono program Domzal and McGeogh worked with, the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, is run by the Southern Poverty Law Center at three detention centers in Georgia and two in Louisiana. Other groups, such as Catholic Charities and Kids In Need of Defense, or KIND, similarly offer legal aid to immigrants.
Earlier this year, a group of University of Maryland Law School professors and students spent their spring break volunteering for the poverty law center program at a facility in Southern Georgia.
Or, as Associate Professor Maureen Sweeney calls it wryly, “where due process goes to die.”
Because deportation is a civil matter, immigrants do not have a right to an attorney as someone charged in a criminal case does. And even if they or family members have the means to hire a lawyer, the remote location of the detention centers means there are few attorneys in the vicinity available to take such cases.
“It was eye-opening for [students] to see how limited the access to legal counsel was,” Sweeney said. “I think they got a real sort of concrete, personal experience of what it means to be detained when your rights are so constrained, more than even in the criminal justice system. I think they also got an experience of what a difference it makes to have a lawyer.
Emily Neubig, now a third-year student, had been president of the school’s Immigration Law and Policy Association and organized the trip. Students raised money and received assistance from the law school for travel and hotel costs. Much of their work involved interviewing detainees to see whether they might be eligible for bond or parole while their cases were pending, conversations made difficult by the fact that there was only one attorney’s room for in-person meetings and a few booths where they could talk by phone across a partition to their potential clients.
“You had to wait forever before they would let you in,” Neubig said, “and then you had to speak through phones where you could hardly hear them.”
For another law student, Jacob Lichtenbaum, the week brought home the privilege he enjoyed simply by “accident of birth.” Lichtenbaum, now a second-year student, said he interviewed a man close to his own age of 25 who lost his protected status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy after a drug possession case.
“If the same thing happened to me, I would get an attorney and be fine,” he said. “Their status is so fragile.”
Lichetenbaum, who is president of the immigration association, said he wishes all citizens could see for themselves the desperation of detainees.
“You see what the stakes are for these people,” he said. “They’re an easy target. Someone needs to stand up for them.”
Dan Werner, who directs the immigrant initiative, said about 320 attorneys have worked pro bono at the detention centers, and others have worked remotely, answering phone calls for the program. Along with hundreds of other volunteers, such as interpreters, the program is making a “significant dent” in the lack of representation among detainees. Studies have shown, as in other legal proceedings, those who have a lawyer are more likely to receive a favorable outcome.
“Even with the wonderful volunteers we have, we’re consistently trying to recruit more,” Werner said.
“Just going into a detention center, acknowledging their humanity and the isolation they feel, and gathering information that could lead to their freedom or even save their life, it’s everything,” he said.
Those who favor stricter immigration laws, however, say that helping a detainee stay in the U.S. can have a cost, particularly if they go on to receive public assistance.
“If the immigrants they help enter the country become a public charge, the taxpayer, not the attorney, picks up the bill,” said Dave Ray, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, which works to crack down on illegal immigration. “In short, the attorney has nothing to lose if the immigrant ends up being a bad apple.”
Additionally, he said, helping an immigrant “likely greases the skids for future paid business for the pro-bono attorney, since most immigrants coming to the U.S. are sponsored by a family member already here. Thus, helping an immigrant enter might lay the groundwork for future cases from their long list of extended family members hoping to enter the U.S. as well.”
Andrew R. Arthur, a resident fellow in law and policy for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration and has the same founder as FAIR, sees the pro bono programs as “an effort to push back against policies they don’t like.”
Arthur served eight years as an immigration judge in York, Pa. Judges are required to handle the questioning if an immigrant appears without a lawyer, he said, and serve as a “neutral arbiter” regardless of whether representation is available.
“There are situations that went on a little bit longer than they should have because there was a lawyer involved,” Arthur said. “I ended up ruling the same way I would have.”
Advocates for immigrants said that contrary to some political rhetoric, immigrants face many hurdles in gaining entry to the country and finding a way to remain, at a time when immigration courts are clogged with more than 800,000 pending cases, according to a Syracuse University report.
The backlog of asylum applications alone stood at more than 319,000 at the end of September, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Seeking asylum without legal representation almost guarantees a denial, according to Syracuse’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which tracks federal data. In 2016, for example, immigration judges denied unrepresented asylum seekers’ claims 90 percent of the time, according to the clearinghouse, compared with 48 percent of those with lawyers.
McGeogh said the process is stringent. “Regardless of how long you’ve been here and are contributing to society, you may not have a valid legal claim to staying here,” she said.
“It’s very difficult to put together a good asylum petition,” she said. “You need to get a lot of letters. You have to have country condition reports. You need people to help document your fear of returning.
“Try to do that while you’re detained,” McGeogh said.
It was disheartening, she said, to repeatedly have to tell detainees that she couldn’t help them. And yet, she said, “the work is still important.”
“We need lawyers down there helping people,” McGeogh said, “and letting them know there are people in the United States who care about them.”
Those who have previously volunteered often return again, Werner of the freedom initiative said. There was even one volunteer, on the partner track of her firm, who ended up quitting her job to join the initiative’s staff.
The Maryland law students hope to return as well.
“The silver lining in the administration’s aggressive stance on immigration,” said Sweeney, the Maryland law professor, “is the huge upheaval and support among students who see this as a new civil rights movement.”