Safe Passage: No Child Faces Immigration Court Alone

Fragomen’s Hyla Kaplan and Marsh & McLennan Companies’ Laurén Rauch discuss the importance – and rewards – of pro bono work with young people trying to come to the U.S.

CCBJ: Tell us about the Safe Passage Project that your two organizations are involved in.

Hyla Kaplan: The Safe Passage Project is a New York-based nonprofit organization founded by Professor Lenni Benson of New York Law School. The organization, which currently has more than 700 open cases, provides full legal representation, at no cost, to children at immediate risk of deportation. The staff of 22, including 13 staff attorneys, is supported by 400 pro bono attorneys.

Safe Passage works with volunteer attorneys in order to provide high-quality pro bono legal representation to immigrant youth. Its mission is to make sure that no child is going to face immigration court alone.

Laurén Rauch: In practice, this means that Safe Passage coordinates intake and placement of undocumented children who’ve been detained at U.S. borders without an accompanying adult and connects them with pro bono attorneys who can represent them. These children are largely fleeing horrific gang violence and extreme poverty in Central America. After detention, they’re placed into the immigration system and released to extended family members in the U.S., pending their deportation hearing. Few of these children have lawyers, and that representation has a significant impact on whether judgment will be in their favor or not. So these children rely on pro bono programs like the Safe Passage Project to help them through the process.

Safe Passage coordinates the intake interviews or “screenings” of the children, and lawyers listen to their stories to help identify what relief the child may qualify for. Safe Passage then reviews the screening reports to determine which cases they can place for representation, either with their own attorneys or a volunteer attorney.

How did Fragomen and Marsh & McLennan Companies come together to get involved in this?

Rauch: Marsh & McLennan Companies’ legal compliance and public affairs department was looking to expand its pro bono work into the immigration space. We created a successful veterans’ benefit clinic, we hold regular community service events and we wanted to expand our commitment into immigration.

We reached out to Fragomen, which works with us extensively as our business immigration counsel to help partner on pro bono work in this space. They have far exceeded our hopes in their assistance. Hyla and I worked with Fragomen’s pro bono coordinator, Barbara Camacho, and our pro bono coordinator, Kymm Walker, to brainstorm various pro bono opportunities.

Ultimately, we decided that the Safe Passage Project was the perfect project to work on together, because it provides an incredibly meaningful service while fitting into busy law firm and in-house schedules.

Kaplan: As Laurén said, it was a great opportunity for our organizations to come together. We have a long partnership, and both of our organizations have a deep commitment to giving back, so this seemed like a natural extension of our work together. What better way to leverage our expertise and resources than to join forces in order to make an impact and difference in the lives of these children. Attorneys from Fragomen have volunteered with the Safe Passage Project since its earliest days in 2013 and have provided much-needed immigration assistance by representing more than 25 children beyond the screening stage.

Can you elaborate on how you help Safe Passage clients with the pro bono work you do?

Kaplan: It is critical that these unaccompanied minor children have legal representation when
dealing with our immigration system and appearing in immigration court. Together, we have listened to and transcribed, in great detail, the traumatic ordeals that these children have endured. As part of an effort to match them with attorneys willing to take on their cases and appear with them in immigration court, these screenings are the first step toward the legal representation these children so desperately need.

During a recent episode of a late night talk show, the host tackled the dysfunction of immigration courts and the hundreds of thousands of cases that are currently backlogged. Even being so close to these issues, the statistics are still astonishing by anyone’s standards. For example, the host noted that just 37 percent of the people who go through immigration court actually have an attorney, and that’s all individuals in immigration court. In Federal Court, there are court-appointed attorneys, but that is not the case in immigration court. You either have the ability to hire an attorney or you represent yourself.

What is more alarming is that these same rules apply to children who are as young as two years old. It comes down to whether or not these children are able to find representation to navigate our complex immigration system, often through organizations such as Safe Passage.

Long-term data available via Syracuse University paints a stark picture: Without counsel, only 17 percent of these children will find a permanent stable outcome. However, with legal support such as that provided by Safe Passage, Fragomen and Marsh & McLennan, 85 percent of children can expect to win their legal case.

Rauch: To follow on that, in these screenings, just knowing that someone is listening and will do what they can to help makes a difference to these kids. They’ve been through so much already and they are trusting you with their stories. Having an authority with a law degree listen and help makes an emotional difference for these children in their journey.

What are some of the benefits from participating in this project for you and your teams?

Rauch: For all of our volunteers participating in the Safe Passage Project, it’s a very hands-on way to learn about a different area of the law and issues that are incredibly relevant today, by contributing meaningful work to children in need.

Immigration issues and unaccompanied minors, in particular, are in the press quite often these days. Our involvement with Safe Passage helps us understand the human aspect of the issue in a way that reading about it can’t.

Also, the work has definitely strengthened the bonds internally among the members of our department, as well as the long-standing bonds between Marsh & McLennan and Fragomen. Our partnership is a great way to interact with our Fragomen counterparts on an outside matter. Strengthening our personal relationships with outside counsel helps fuel future professional interactions.

Kaplan: This is a great opportunity for our organizations to work together and do something a little bit different than what we do normally. Professionally, we talk from time to time as the need arises on a given matter. However, our pro bono partnership provides us with the opportunity to be able to collaborate for hours at a time. That provides the benefit of deepening our personal relationships with one another, while helping to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our community.

These stronger personal relationships can only further our professional partnership. For many of us, the work that we are doing with the Safe Passage Project can remind us why we became attorneys to begin with and gives us a chance to help those who are less fortunate. We may not always be able to do that in our everyday work, but our efforts with Safe Passage certainly provide us with this opportunity.

Rauch: I couldn’t agree more. It’s wonderful to partner with a law firm that encourages pro bono work so much, and to be part of a company that encourages, facilitates and supports pro bono for its in-house counsel – and for everyone who works here.

What have you learned from your experiences with pro bono work and the Safe Passage Project?

Kaplan: While doing pro bono work significantly impacts the lives of the children and families we work with, participating in this project has been life-changing for us as well. Being able to work in a profession that you love and use your skills in a way to help others is very rewarding.

Taking part in the project with Safe Passage also exposes me on a regular basis to a diverse group of individuals and cultures and allows me to see the world through their eyes. I have been able to forge deep connections with people that I may not have had the opportunity to meet in a more typical work setting.

Rauch: I’ve learned that stepping outside your professional comfort zone for a couple hours to do good work is always worth it. Time and time again, my colleagues and I leave Safe Passage with an acute sense of the privilege of sitting on our side of the interview table. These kids have been through more than I can fathom. To be even a small, positive piece of their journey, and to hopefully help them to a safer life in the future, is incredibly fulfilling.

It shows that a few short hours of your time can make a difference in someone’s life. And while the work falls outside of our areas of legal expertise as a corporate in-house department, utilizing our problem-solving skills and just being a lawyer who will listen to these children really does help them with very pressing needs.

What advice would you give to others looking to get involved in this type of work?

Rauch: I would greatly encourage other in-house teams to pursue pro bono work with unaccompanied minors and to form pro bono partnerships with their external counsel. The work is fulfilling. The need is there. And the rest of your day is put into serious perspective after you have used your skills to help a person in need.

For in-house teams, I would say it’s incredibly beneficial to find a partner like we have found in Fragomen. Partnering with a law firm really makes it easier and more feasible for in-house legal departments to find and do this meaningful, impactful work, and strengthens the bonds between the organizations.

Kaplan: We have enjoyed this partnership tremendously. But not all companies have in-house pro bono programs or the ability to partner with a law firm. Nevertheless, there is still so much pro bono work that needs to be done, and there couldn’t be a more critical time to get involved. There are so many individuals in communities that need our skills, resources and emotional support.

For individuals working at organizations that do not have formal pro bono programs, we suggest reaching out to organizations of interest in the community or the local bar association. These organizations will help pair the individuals with someone in need or a project of interest to enable them to engage in this truly impactful and life-changing work.

Hyla Kaplan, a partner at Fragomen, has extensive experience with all aspects of corporate immigration law and provides counsel on major employment-based temporary and permanent visa categories, as well as family-based permanent residence applications and applications for U.S. citizenship—from individual clients to Fortune-500 companies across industries. Hyla also maintains an active pro bono practice and has represented family members of 9/11 victims and individuals in multiple asylum cases. Reach her at [email protected].

Laurén Rauch is a senior counsel at Oliver Wyman, a wholly owned subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan Companies. Laurén sits on the Marsh & McLennan Legal Compliance and Public Affairs (LCPA) Pro Bono Committee and has also represented veterans in their claims for disability benefits as part of Marsh & McLennan’s LCPA pro bono initiative. Reach her at [email protected].

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