An opportunity, asylum-seekers, and a second chance for a pro bono attorney
BY ELIZABETH M. ROSENMAN
Editor’s note: This article contains information about sexual assault and abuse.
I stopped working six weeks into my pregnancy with twin girls. After they arrived, my brain was a mess. My biggest challenge during their first few months was remembering which snuggly stuffed animal went with which baby. Did the white lamb belong in the crib with the twin who had brown hair? Maybe it was the blonde’s?
Once we all started sleeping through the night, life got easier. I decided to stay home instead of going back to work. For several years, I did some freelance writing and a ton of child-related volunteering. When the twins started middle school, my schedule blew wide open.
What to do?
I wanted to use my law degree to help people. At the time, I had no idea that the volunteer work I’d choose would force me to confront darkness around the world and in my past.
A friend from the Gambia, who had recently been granted political asylum here, told me that Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) needed pro bono lawyers to represent asylum-seekers. Intrigued, I contacted the nonprofit. It turned out that NWIRP was putting on a training seminar for prospective volunteers the next week.
I got there early, nervous to be possibly returning to the legal world without knowing anything about immigration law. Jordan Wasserman, NWIRP’s pro bono coordinating attorney, was already there. We talked for a few minutes before the room filled. I liked Jordan immediately. He reminded me of friends from law school—smart but not competitive, low-key and sweet.
Most of the morning was spent learning asylum law basics. Some asylum-seekers were headed to immigration court and others would be slated for less adversarial administrative interviews. Volunteer lawyers could represent people going down either path.
Then came the practicalities. NWIRP prescreened the asylum-seekers. The organization covered volunteers’ malpractice insurance. Some cases were complicated; others straightforward. No prior experience was required. Jordan could meet with volunteers to get a feel for their comfort level and explain the details. He’d match each with an asylum-seeker who would be a good fit. If lawyers had questions as they worked with their clients, Jordan would be available to answer them.
The seminar finished by lunch. That evening, I signed up to take a case. Asylum law seemed fascinating. Why not give it a try?
Once I began representing asylum-seekers, I threw myself into the work with what I’m sure was an overabundance of enthusiasm. I collected online articles about political conditions in Eritrea and Ethiopia, countries which had barely been on my radar before NWIRP sent me clients who had lived there. I hunted for reliable immigration law websites like the one that delivered the latest asylum rulings automatically to my inbox. Over-preparing was easier for me than worrying I hadn’t done enough, given that my clients’ lives were at stake.
Ten years later, I’m still representing NWIRP-referred asylum-seekers. Early on, after I had taken a few cases, Jordan called me with a question: could he interview me for an upcoming newsletter profile?
Yes, of course.
I was likely chosen because I was a good recruiting tool—someone with no special skills who found the work doable and rewarding. The interview was going fine until Jordan asked me why I was drawn to this kind of volunteering. The question caught me off guard. Maybe it was telling that I didn’t have a ready answer.
I said the first thing that popped into my mind: I am not a religious person, but I am Jewish. I’m amazed by the sacrifices people made to help Jews fleeing persecution during the Holocaust. I realize I’m not putting my life in jeopardy by representing asylum-seekers, but advocating for immigrants is my way of honoring those who helped my ancestors. I’m following their lead.
That answer came from my heart.
I didn’t mention the other reason, the one that’s darker and harder to think about. As a kid, with my mother’s tacit approval, I was sexually abused by my father. He played a game with me on my parents’ bed under their green blanket. He called it wrestling. Mostly, he rubbed his body against mine and touched me in ways that I didn’t know then that adults would consider inappropriate.
I said nothing. At first, I wasn’t aware that anything was amiss. As I got older, it seemed easier to bury what had happened rather than have to deal with the aftermath of exposing family secrets. As an adult, I’m furious at myself for not speaking up as a kid. I had plenty of opportunities—teachers, adults I trusted, relatives who weren’t too keen on my parents.
It’s impossible for me to go back and rescue that child. Now, I try to help people who are trapped in nightmares find their way out. I’m drawn to asylum-seekers because they have the courage to confront authority, risking everything to protest injustice. We stand together in immigration proceedings to politely but forcefully request safe harbor. When clients are granted asylum, it’s a victory for them and, in a small way, a second chance for me.