Six children’s lives are forever changed because of Alexandra Hess. Each year since 2011, Alex—an associate at Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP (“HH&R”) in Washington, DC—has worked on pro bono cases with KIND to ensure these six children have an attorney by their side through their immigration hearings. As this month’s Pro Bono Attorney of the Month, KIND asked Alex about her experience working on these cases with KIND. When asked why she has continued to take on challenging cases, Alex simply stated that, “Part of our responsibility as attorneys is pro bono work – one of the reasons I went to HH&R is because of the opportunities and culture that exists and supports pro bono.”
Alex has worked with kids applying for both SIJS (Special Immigrant Juvenile Status) and asylum. However, no matter the form of relief, these kids all have one thing in common— they have all fled El Salvador for the U.S. in search of safety. Alex said that, “in all of these kids’ stories they had to make the choice of either certain death at home or possible death in the desert – so they went for it.”
Alex’s first KIND case was with Alicides, a young boy who came to the U.S. at 16 after threats against his life started increasing. As his guardian in the U.S. said, “Every day [in El Salvador] you hear about a child killed somewhere.” Alex was successful in getting Alicides SIJS, and still keeps in touch with him. Alex is currently helping him with his English so he can take his residency exam.
Alex has gone above and beyond for her KIND clients. Christie Turner, KIND Supervising Attorney in DC, stated, “Alex is a tireless advocate for her KIND clients. She has handled several complex cases and never backs down when faced with obstacles in an immigration system that can be unfair and unreasonable to the children we work with. Her dedication and thorough preparation are inspiring.”
Alex is currently finishing a case with two young sisters who were neglected by their mother and threatened with rape and death by gangs at home in El Salvador. Knowing they had an older brother in the U.S., they decided to make the dangerous journey last year. Once they arrived in the U.S., they had no one to help them through their deportation proceedings. The two girls have started 9th grade at a local high school and love having the opportunity to learn and to be in the care of their brother, and without the stress of gang violence facing them daily.
I became involved with KIND when I began working at Hughes Hubbard & Reed (“HH&R”). HH&R has had a long-standing relationship with the organization. A few other associates had ongoing cases with KIND that sounded fascinating. When KIND held a training, I attended. The training was extremely well-run and organized and gave me the confidence to enter an area of law in which I had no experience. KIND promised to support me through the cases and provide the big-picture oversight necessary to carry out the best representation possible. Additionally, I had the personal motivation of keeping up my Spanish skills and gaining experience being lead counsel on a case. I came away from that training with a client and I have never once had occasion to doubt the decision.
I did not have any experience with immigration law prior to taking on KIND cases. KIND has an incredible model that capitalizes on the expertise and experience of a few to create an exponential impact. KIND’s staff members are incredibly well-trained and knowledgeable and clearly understand the time pressures of big law. As a result, all emails, phone calls, and questions are answered promptly and efficiently. KIND provides overview materials, provides samples of all pleadings, provides research memos on particular and difficult issues that arise, monitors and provides updates on ongoing changes in policies or laws, and does all this without crowding email inboxes with unnecessary information. In moments where novel issues have arisen, KIND has access to extensive networks and will reach out to others in the field across the country to develop a sense of current trends. The net effect is that anyone – either a first-year associate or a seasoned practitioner in another field of law – can offer time and a little hard work and make an incredible impact on the life of a child and ultimately their family.
The most humbling and profound lesson learned has been how little effort it takes to make an enormous impact on unaccompanied children. Before taking a case I had moments of self-doubt. Who am I? And what could I possibly offer knowing nothing about immigration law?
In my very first meeting with my very first client, I explained who I was, the role of the lawyer, confidentiality, tried to joke about how he could fire me at any time, the process of a Special Immigrant Juvenile Status case, where he was in that process, next steps, what legal permanent residency could mean for his future, immigration policy, and I think I even added in a bit about college (forgive me, I was a first-year!) . . . . At the end, he looked up at me and said, “you mean, you will walk in first, in front of me, when we have to go to court? You will tell me where to stand?”
Those two questions sat me back in my chair. That was it. If I was nothing more than a band leader, a marshal of facts, if I was nothing more than a microphone, it was going to make a world of difference to him. While we all strive for perfection and legal brilliance all that mattered to him was that I was there. This moment continues to drive me to take on as many cases as possible and to encourage others to do the same.
Beyond the reason mentioned above, it is important for attorneys to represent unaccompanied children because the children’s ability to represent themselves is limited by their ability to articulate their circumstances in relation to the law, their education, and especially any trauma endured. In the case of unaccompanied minors, the limitations are insurmountable.
It is truly inconceivable to expect a child to stand before a judge in a foreign country (wondering whether they will be dragged away at any moment and sent back to their home country), to understand their rights under U.S. law, and to articulate in one minute or less why they face persecution or how they have been abused, abandoned, or neglected and how that trauma should garner them relief from deportation. The concept is laughable. But laughter quickly fades as I internalize the notion that children are being asked to do this every day.
Above and beyond knowing the law, I think the most important service attorneys provide to these children is the opportunity to get out their factual story. KIND has already done the hard work of determining whether they have a case under U.S. law. Our job, then, is to spend the time and build the relationship necessary to pull together the factual history – a feat that can take time, especially if the level of trauma is extreme.
Do not hesitate. There is always a reason why the time is not right to take a pro bono case. There is always the lingering fear that you do not know enough. But the reality is these kids want nothing more than to walk behind someone into that courtroom and be told where to stand. KIND’s support and a little elbow grease will take care of the rest.