Not that long ago, Jeannette, 17, who was born in Guinea and came to the United States as a young teenager, was living in deep despair. She was not eating, not going to school, and rarely leaving the house where she was living. In immigration proceedings, she was terrified of being forced to return to her abusive parents who hadn’t cared for her in years and to an unstable country where she had no one to take her in. Her numerous attempts to find a pro bono attorney had been unsuccessful. She was sure she was going to have to go back; she had so few resources that she didn’t even have the money to return to her home country which she had told an immigration judge she would do.
Now, Jeannette is a vibrant young woman about to graduate from high school. She won immigration status. She is applying for college and wants to become a nurse because she is “passionate about helping people.” She has a strong sense of herself and knows where she wants to go in life. She’s already been accepted to one college. She’s on her way.
Jeannette would be far from this path if she did not have a dedicated pro bono attorney. In an interview with KIND in April, Jeannette described her struggle to find a pro bono attorney, highlighting the plight of thousands of unaccompanied children in the United States, and how having a pro bono attorney quite literally changed her life. Excerpts from the interview are below.
Jeannette: I started going to school. I was also going to immigration court with my aunt but we did not find a lawyer to help me because every lawyer that we went to was either too expensive or they said my case was too hard and that they couldn’t help me. I was really desperate. My aunt and I went to the court three or four times and every time we went, I prayed to God that everything would go well. I was really scared that the judge was going to say, “Okay, you have to go back home.” Every time I would go up there, the judge would ask me if I had a lawyer. When I told him no, he asked if I wanted to extend the time. I would say yes and then we would come back again.
We went to some free lawyers and they said, “your case is too difficult” and some wanted to charge us $5,000 to start. Where were we going to get that money? We went to about six lawyers, and they couldn’t help me. I was feeling completely hopeless.
And then my aunt, she told me, “Okay Jeannette, we don’t have any lawyers so you have to go back home, there is no choice.” I knew that going home was going to be horrible. I wasn’t going to go back to school. I was going to be desperate, probably like hurting myself and running away. The next time we went to court, the judge told me I had to voluntarily go back home because I didn’t have a lawyer. So I really had no choice.
My aunt and I were preparing for me to go back, my departure, but we didn’t have any money to buy my ticket so I had to stay at home for about three months instead of going to school. My aunt was scared that the police would come to her door and ask her, “Where is Jeannette?” and that she would be in trouble. She was scared that she would get arrested by the police because she didn’t want me to overstay the time that they gave me for my departure. She was really scared and was fussing at me every day. We were not getting along. I didn’t eat, I was starving myself. She wouldn’t let me see my friends. I was wondering, “What am I doing in this world?”
I had a friend who came to my home when my aunt was at work and said, “Jeannette, I am really worried, what is happening with you? You are not coming to school. You should tell your aunt that you should come to school.” I told her that she didn’t understand my situation, that I couldn’t come to school right now because I am in departure and my aunt kept me at home for three months without doing anything. Sometimes I would go three days without eating, I was hopeless. My friend asked me if I needed help and to call her if I did.
The next day I called her and said, “Okay, I thought about what you told me and I think I need help because I don’t think anyone will help me.” She gave me her social worker’s number [the friend is in a foster care home] and I called the social worker and I told her my problem. I scheduled an appointment with her and she came to see me at home while my aunt was at work. She asked me what was happening and I told her everything. She was going to see if the agency where she worked could help me, and unfortunately they couldn’t. When she told me that she couldn’t help me, I was thinking, “What is happening to me again?” So I had to give up everything. There was nothing, I didn’t have any hope. I called the police and told them that my aunt was not treating me fairly and that I didn’t know if I wanted to stay with her for the rest of the time I had to spend in the United States. The police couldn’t do anything either; the only thing they could do was give me a shelter number. So I called the shelter but nothing happened.
It was one week before I was supposed to leave. I didn’t have a ticket but I was hoping to get one because if I didn’t leave, immigration was going to come and get me and I didn’t want that to happen. The social worker called and told me, “Jeannette, I have good news. I found somebody for you!” I couldn’t believe it. She told me that his name was Paul and that he worked for an organization called KIND. She gave me Paul’s number and I talked to him.
That day I was happy, I was really happy that I met Paul [Lee, a KIND pro bono coordinator] and he was really nice to me. He asked me if I needed to get out of my aunt’s house that same day. The social worker took me to a group home. I was finally happy, and that was the beginning of my life. From that day I started having hope because I was actually having somebody care about me. For the first time, in a really long time I felt like somebody was really willing to help me.
Paul explained that he couldn’t be my lawyer but that he was going to give me the number of a pro bono lawyer he had found for me. Then Bill started going to the court with me. And I felt that it was really great.” [Jeannette’s pro bono attorney was Bill Ecenberger]
J: I didn’t share that story with very many people, but it felt great. It felt like I was relieving everything that I had inside of me since I couldn’t talk to anybody. He was really great to me when I first met him. He was kind; he was willing to help me.
J: It was kind of like my dream was becoming true and I finally have a lawyer because I always dreamed of that. Bill was the reason for this, he helped me find a shelter, and he is helping me with the process of getting my papers.
J: I live in an independent living facility. It is really great because everybody is nice to me, they comfort me and they encourage me to do good. I motivate myself to do good in school because I know that my parents are not here to encourage me to do that, and I know where I came from, where I am, and where I am headed. I think about my future and who I want to be, so I take everything seriously.
J: I would say that if a young person like me experiences this type of thing they should be patient and they should have hope and believe in themselves. They should encourage themselves and not be discouraged.
I used to be really sad when I would talk about what was happening with me because it reminded me of everything. But now I can talk about it because what I have dreamed of is coming true. I’ve dreamed that one day I am going to be living independently, and I will become successful. That is happening right now because I am about to graduate from high school. I am living independently and I am taking really good care of myself, so it’s a really big accomplishment for me.
I would also say that Bill, Paul, and KIND were like angels that came to me, because I am really grateful and I don’t know how to thank them for helping me. Even now, I really don’t know how to thank them.