Thursday, October 29, 2015
Innovations in Immigration Law Teaching and Lawyering (Series): Nora Phillips and Post-Removal Legal Services
The next series post on innovations in immigration law teaching/lawyering features Nora Phillips, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles and Al Otro Lado, a non-profit legal services organization that works with deportees, migrants and refugees on the other side of the US-Mexico border. Many immigration advocates know Ms. Phillips – now in private immigration practice –through her leadership in the nonprofit sector on U visas and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Al Otro Lado (“On The Other Side,” a colloquial phrase used to refer to the US if one is in Mexico and vice versa) illustrates the potential for US immigration law to provide remedies to individuals both after removal and prior to entry and adds to the area of post-removal legal practice, the development of which has been led by immigration advocates such as Professor Daniel Kanstroom, Professor Rachel Rosenbloom, and the Post-Deportation Human Rights Project at Boston College Law School.
1. What is Al Otro Lado?
Al Otro Lado is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization incorporated in California. We are a bi-national, direct legal services organization serving indigent deportees, migrants, and refugees in Tijuana, Mexico. The bulk of our services are immigration-related. However, the needs of the people we serve are diverse, so we also coordinate with attorneys and non-legal professionals in a range of areas such as family law, labor law, criminal law (particularly post-conviction relief), and employment law. We also handle family reunification in Mexico, which is not technically “immigration law” but is certainly related to immigration. The most common scenario is when a single mother is deported from the US, leaving her young, US citizen children in the US foster care system. We assist with social workers and dependency attorneys in the US to return the child to live with the deported parent when it is what the child and parent desire. Alternatively, we can file a request under the ICE Parental Interests Directive (Facilitation of Return) to bring the parent to the US to attempt to preserve their parental rights.
2. What led you to start providing legal services to individuals in Tijuana?
Al Otro Lado started as a very informal "social justice hobby" (really nothing else to call it) between me and one of my best friends, Esmeralda Flores ("Esme"). Esme and I met about four years ago. At the time, I was a Staff Attorney at CARECEN (Central American Resource Center) and Esme was an attorney for PDIB (Programa de Defensa e Incidencia Binacional), a human rights organization along the US-Mexico border (Esme now is the binational outreach coordinator with ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties for the Lopez-Venegas settlement). Esme was in Tijuana, housed at the Casa del Migrante, a large migrant shelter in Tijuana. She screened deportees and migrants for violations of civil and human rights by Mexican and US law enforcement authorities. Esme was in Los Angeles for a training and we met in person and hit it off instantly. Our knowledge and expertise were extremely complementary and we had shared goals. We started coordinating - she would email me about certain cases she encountered and I would screen for immigration relief. It was a completely unfunded, informal alliance between two close friends who were committed to the same thing but on different sides of the border. We have collaborated on countless cases since and have been able to get several people back to the US after they were deported, via mechanisms such as the U Visa and Humanitarian Parole. We have conducted periodic screening clinics at Casa del Migrante staffed by volunteer immigration attorneys from Los Angeles and Orange County. So far, we have screened several hundred people for relief.
When we realized how novel our idea was and how good we were at it because our clients were getting reunified with the families, we decided to take our work to the next level, a formal non-profit organization. The University of Southern California (USC) Small Business Clinic took us on as clients and did an amazing job setting up our 501(c)(3) (they also set up my private firm’s LLP, so I am forever grateful to Professor Michael Chasalow and his amazing students). Esme and I are on the board of Al Otro Lado, as well as Gabriela Morales, a venerated human rights attorney in Mexico City focusing on the southern (Mexico) border. Currently we have no paid staff and operate on a very grassroots level. However, we have an incredible law student extern (Jessica Hanson, UCLA Law). She and I work diligently – lots of legal research and lots of client interviewing, while keeping “big picture” policy and litigation in mind – in our current "office," which is actually in my basement. There's not too much of a need to have a physical office in Los Angeles, since our work is basically done once our client arrives in the US. However, we are looking at options for donated office space in Los Angeles since the current "Wayne's World" setup presents some challenges, such as when my wonderful toddler runs downstairs to show me drawings while I'm on the phone screening a torture victim.
3. How has doing this worked changed your perception of the role of US immigration lawyers?
It's complicated. I come from a solid non-profit background and am now in private practice having recently co-founded a private immigration law firm, Phillips & Urias, LLP, in Los Angeles, with my amazing law partner, Laura Urias, who also worked exclusively in the non-profit sector prior to us setting up shop. Our firm is a full-scope immigration law practice and we handle everything from family-based petitions to U Visas and VAWA, DACA, residency, naturalization, and representation of individuals in removal proceedings and ICE custody. Based on my experience, I understand both the public and private sector side and the need to charge for services. However, I think that many attorneys consider the case finished once the client is removed. We pick up where those attorneys left off. One of our goals is for Al Otro Lado to be able to help with this challenge soon by developing helpful materials for US attorneys to share with clients who are being removed. It's also psychologically complicated for attorneys here because a client's deportation feels like (and is) defeat.
On the other hand, I am amazed at how many immigration attorneys are willing to caravan down to Tijuana on a weekday to get slammed with up to 15 clients to screen. These cases are intellectually and emotionally challenging. Clients often break down crying in the middle of the clinic recounting horrific trauma or when they are given news that there is no way to come back to the US because of how terribly inhumane and nonsensical our immigration laws are. The last clinic we did (in March 2015), we had 25 attorneys drive down from Los Angeles. I was running around Casa del Migrante getting everything ready for the clinic and, when I went into the room where Father Pat (a wonderful priest at Casa del Migrante) was speaking to all the volunteers, tears started rolling down my cheeks when I saw a room packed with lawyers ready to help. It was beautiful thing. There are many people who contact me on a weekly basis to find out when Al Otro Lado is heading down next to do another clinic, as well as people who can't make the trip but want to volunteer their time analyzing complex cases we encounter at the clinics. As with many things, beautiful and not-so-beautiful aspects of humanity come out often in this work.
Two things that have really struck me about this work are the undeniable connection between Los Angeles and Tijuana and also how counterintuitive your advice can be once you’re on the other side of the border. As far as the former, I recall a time when I was giving a talk before one of our clinics to clinic attendees, many of whom were deportees. We got into a friendly “argument” about which was better, Boyle Heights or East LA (two adjoining neighborhoods in Los Angeles - my law firm is in Boyle Heights). And I was silent for a moment (rare for me) thinking about how there is this huge community of deportees from Los Angeles living in Tijuana, a city that the vast majority are not natives of; they are in Tijuana because that’s the closest they can get to their families in Los Angeles. I know plenty of families who cross on a weekly basis to visit relatives in Tijuana. Later that day, I met a man who, prior to his deportation, had lived for close to 40 years about 7 blocks from where I live now. He had 6 US citizen kids who he was desperate to get back to. He was so kind. As a parent, I couldn’t even imagine what he was going through. On this side (in Los Angeles), I know a huge number of people with deported family members living in Tijuana.
As to the latter, as a US immigration attorney, it's very difficult at first to flip your brain to the Mexico side. By that, I mean that here, in the US, your main goal is to keep your clients OUT of the hands of ICE and CBP. When clients are in Mexico and are fleeing persecution, their only option is to turn themselves IN to CBP to request Credible/Reasonable Fear screening. It feels very, very strange and takes a while to get used to. You have to prep them that they WILL be detained, for possibly 6 months or more, and the lack of predictability is really hard in terms of managing client expectations, because everything is so utterly unpredictable, especially with adult male clients. Unaccompanied minors, women, and women with minor children are more predictable in terms of how long they will expect to be in custody and where they will be detained.
4. What are your goals for the short-term?
We have seen hundreds of clients but until we are able to establish more capacity and infrastructure, and maybe sleep once in awhile, we absolutely have to focus on resources right now so that we can continue to grow. We are so overwhelmed with cases right now that we are not taking any new clients, even for emergency persecution/torture cases (however, we are working very closely with our Tijuana Al Otro Lado family to disseminate pro se guides for Central American and Mexican refugees seeking to turn themselves in at the border and request Credible/Reasonable Fear screening).
That is heartbreaking since there are many lives at stake, but we need to do this so that we are able to help the largest number of people possible. I have a team of incredible, development-savvy women who are helping me with these aspects of the organization.
5. How does your work on behalf of Al Otro Lado interact with the private immigration law firm that you co-own? How do you manage to do all of this?
I work all the time. I have 2 full-time jobs, in addition to being a mom. I have a very patient law partner that not only tolerates my pro bono-itis but also serves as an incredible pro bono attorney on immigration and family law cases for Al Otro Lado. My extern is a godsend, and I am so grateful to UCLA and USC Law Schools for taking a chance on a brand new non-profit. I have amazing support from my board members and the Los Angeles immigration attorney and immigrant rights activist communities. My own non-profit background has given me a huge, national (and international) network of incredible, brilliant advocates and that is extremely helpful. And my husband is pretty fantastic, too.
Clearly, the status quo is unsustainable, which is why we are exploring long-term funding options to take everything to the next level. This is sort of par for the course for grassroots organizations. It's very exhausting but very exciting at the same time. When I get to walk a single mom and domestic violence survivor back over the border and fly her home to her teenage sons, it makes all the exhaustion and tears totally worth it.