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Lawyers come to aid of immigrants in crisis, for free

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Meghan Elliott is an in-house counsel at Apogee Enterprises.
Meghan Elliott is an in-house counsel at Apogee Enterprises in Bloomington, Minn., and she's taken on pro bono immigration work involving asylum cases, here on Oct. 11, 2017.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

A heightened awareness of a changing immigration policy landscape has motivated Minnesota lawyers to pursue immigration cases pro bono, or for free.  

  One of them is Meghan Elliott, Apogee Enterprises' assistant general counsel. Her full-time job is doing legal work for Viracon — the company that made the glass for U.S. Bank Stadium. The work she does pro bono is completely different.  

  "I think most people will tell you that they do pro bono because it provides more of a connection to the community that you live in," she said.

    When Elliott was first introduced to immigration work, she immediately fell in love with it. Her first immigration case was applying for asylum for a husband and wife from Ethiopia. She worked with the couple for five years, and they were eventually granted asylum. Later, their son served in the U.S. military and they started a nonprofit in St. Paul.  

  Currently, Elliott has three active cases: a naturalization case and two U-Visas, which are granted to victims of crimes and their immediate family who cooperate with law enforcement.

    "Every single client that I've worked with has had an impact on me," she said. "It reminds you of why you became a lawyer."

  The work is high-stakes and nerve-wracking, especially for lawyers who weren't trained to represent immigrants fighting to stay in the country. But experts say Minnesota is a leader in the nation, as it has an abundance of resources and nonprofit organizations that recruit and train attorneys willing to take on such work for free.  

  Cynthia Anderson is the pro bono director at Lindquist & Vennum, a large regional law firm in Minneapolis. The company has about 140 attorneys working on pro bono cases. Anderson said 11 percent of the work in 2016 was immigration-related, and she estimates the percentage has been higher this year.  

  "People have come out of the woodwork to work on issues that they may not have been inclined to work on in the past," Anderson said. The attorneys are motivated in part, she said, by their perception of "basic human rights being violated."  

  Most of the cases that nonprofit organizations like the Immigrant Law Center refer to outside volunteers involve less complicated work, like naturalization or the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. But the recent uptick in the number of immigration detainees has gotten lawyers thinking about the more time-consuming, complex cases as well.

Anne Applebaum is pro bono director at the Immigrant Law Center of Minn.
Anne Applebaum is the pro bono director at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota in St. Paul, here on Oct. 12, 2017.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

Anne Applebaum, the pro bono director at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said many area law firms have pro bono built into their infrastructure, and recent anti-immigration rhetoric hasn't hindered their willingness to sign up for complex immigration cases.  

  "Quite the opposite," she said. That the attorneys are willing to do such work for free, she added, gives clients a sense of empowerment.    

"The person who's helping to make this reality for me is someone who doesn't have to do this," she said. "They're not being paid, they're working above and beyond high-hour jobs and families and other restrictions, and they're choosing to do this."  

Some corporations might be reluctant to formalize pro bono programs when the work relates to controversial issues like immigration or criminal expungement, writes David March in this month's issue of Bench & Bar of Minnesota. March is a director counsel at Target Corporation and the chair of the Minnesota Corporate Pro Bono Council.  

  "It evokes strong emotions and concerns about corporate and/or professional ramifications," he wrote. Even so, he said in an interview, companies are moving toward formalizing their pro bono programs.

  March doesn't focus on specific issues in his own pro bono work. His first case was helping a young, homeless veteran find the resources he needed to get back on track.    

"It was eye-opening for me," he said.    

Years later, March can still picture the man and remembers the smell of alcohol. He knew at that moment his internal biases caused him to make judgments that the young veteran could immediately sense.  

  "And as he told me his story, I learned really quickly that I was making a huge mistake," March said. "And I needed to be more open and listen to him and understand where he was from. I thought if I can have that experience, and it turned out in a positive way, that others could as well."  

  Since then, March has taken on similar cases and others involving DACA work. He said the overarching theme is poverty.

  "What we look at, when we evaluate opportunities, [is] what is the human impact," he said. "We look at how can we make a difference in someone else's life? And if we can, then we're compelled to act."

Editor's note: The text of this article has been edited to clarify Meghan Elliott's title as assistant general counsel for Apogee Enterprises.