Change the World

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At 4:30 AM on any given morning, men, women, and children from Central and South America and Cuba walk across the international bridge from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico to Laredo, Texas for their immigration hearings. They are headed to temporary tent-courts where they will be pleading their cases for entry into the US. They present their life stories via videoconference to immigration judges in remote locations such as San Antonio. The government’s attorneys, who are arguing against them, are in the same location as the judges, adding to the confusing and intimidating nature of the process. Most of those seeking asylum are unrepresented and do not speak English. When the hearings end, they will either exit to the right and to freedom, or to the left back to Mexico and a desperate future. The overwhelming majority exit to the left.

I discovered all of this recently while working with the amazing people at the Laredo Project. The Laredo Project is a pro bono legal program of the law firm Jones Day. In addition to the people we were working with, as described below, The Laredo Project brought in additional top legal talent to handle the cases it selected. The amount and caliber of these lawyers was truly impressive. When the firm appointed Laura Tuell as worldwide lead for its pro bono program thirteen years ago, her marching orders were to “change the world.” Based upon the outstanding work of the Laredo Project, which is not her only pro bono work, it’s obvious that Laura has taken this challenge to heart and has inspired many others in her firm to join her in this pursuit.

Working in teams of three that included an interpreter, we were handed numerous files containing the names, phone numbers, and brief information about people who had contacted the Laredo Project hotline to ask for legal representation at their asylum hearings. We were tasked with determining if they had been persecuted, if the persecution was because of their inclusion in a “protected social group,” and if they had a greater than 50% chance of being persecuted if they returned to their countries of origin. This information would help determine if the firm should provide pro bono representation. Our work was done remotely, because Nuevo Laredo, where the vast majority of the asylum-seekers were staying, had become far too dangerous a place for anyone to go – for any reason.

While each and every case contained heartbreaking elements, our job was to be objective and determine which cases had the best shot at positive outcomes. We needed to work the odds to increase the number of people who won their cases and lessen the likelihood of setting bad precedents, which could make future cases harder to win.

The stories we heard ranged from the uncomfortable to the downright horrible. There was the woman in Mexico who was kidnapped and raped by the cartel. She explained that when she heard sirens and realized the police were on their way, she thought her ordeal was about to end. Instead, the police came into the place she was being held and joined in the rape. Or the family whose house had been set on fire—with them inside—due to their outspoken support of the opposition in Venezuela. As horrific as these stories were, we understood that, on some very basic level, we were providing a service of significant consequence simply by the very human act of listening and allowing those sharing their stories to feel that they were being heard.

By mid-week, we were in a rhythm. Even still, the shortest calls lasted 45 minutes because of the guidance we provided to those whose cases we would not be taking. The longest calls sometimes went close to three hours. The heaviest lifting was done by the interpreters. They had to explain everything, often more than once, to some extremely desperate people. Most often they were met with gratitude, but sometimes with tears and a complete lack of understanding. Until you’ve told a woman who is HIV positive and facing horrific circumstances in her home country that the firm won’t be able to represent her, it’s tough to fully comprehend such hopelessness.

By the end of the week I’d participated in approximately 20 calls. We’d made three or four strong recommendations to represent, and only one case will likely be taken. We took some solace in the fact that we had listened well to each difficult story and provided substantial free legal services to those we had declined to represent.

It took some time and distance for me to process my week in Laredo. I initially felt that the entire situation was overwhelming, and that my participation in it was wholly inadequate. But, as time passed, that initial pessimism has been replaced by something more hopeful and realistic.

The Laredo Project is ostensibly about helping individuals who are seeking to legally enter and stay in the US. That is a daunting process to be certain. But, I believe the Laredo Project plays a much larger role: it brings into sharp relief the fact that every single human being is deserving of dignity. By deeply listening to each story, the Laredo Project interview teams provide those in dire need with at least a shred of dignity, which, in turn, gives them the hope that comes from sharing a meaningful human connection. That is something each and every one of us can do to help change the world, one human interaction at a time.

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