Kelly Huggins, Pro Bono Counsel and coordinator of the Capital Litigation Project and the Political Asylum and Immigrants’ Rights Project, recently sat down with Gina DelChiaro, Senior Staff Attorney with Human Rights First, to discuss Gina’s pro bono work and how her career at Sidley prepared her to make the transition to a public interest role.
Kelly: What does your role at Human Rights First entail?
Gina: In my position as Senior Staff Attorney at Human Rights First, where I have worked since leaving Sidley in 2011, I do several things, but my main responsibility is to match up attorneys with pro bono cases through our program. I also provide attorneys with mentoring as needed throughout their cases.
Kelly: What would you like people to know or understand about refugees?
Gina: People from all kinds of backgrounds flee to the United States for many different reasons. Many refugees are very capable, educated and well travelled. They just need someone who understands the law to help them maneuver through the complicated immigration system.
Kelly: In your new role, what has been your most gratifying experience?
Gina: It’s hard to pick just one experience, but winning cases for clients and seeing how it changes their lives is incredible. Also, watching the change in an attorney who may never have taken on these types of cases before is very gratifying. To be there for both the attorney and the client and to see what it does for them when they win a case—to me there’s nothing like it. I would do this for free if I could—it’s amazing.
Kelly: Was there a particular case that was inspirational to you in terms of human rights work?
Gina: Definitely the first asylum case that I ever worked on when I was in law school, which, coincidentally, was with Human Rights First through a clinic. It sounds cliché, but it changed my life. At Sidley, there were several cases I enjoyed, but the last one I took on before I came here was particularly rewarding. My client was from West Africa, and she had been forced into a marriage when she was very young to a powerful Imam in her village. She was forced to undergo female genital mutilation in her 20s with no anesthesia. She was then abused by him and by people in her village for having contact with a male friend from school. She was forced to drop out of school against her will but was still in contact with the friend from school, which got her in even more trouble. Persecution is an understatement for what she went through. I joined the case, which had a really great team of litigation and transactional associates, and we went to court and won. Then when I came to Human Rights First, I brought the case here with me. The client just became a U.S. citizen a couple of months ago, and I was there for her ceremony. It was really emotional and was definitely one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.
Kelly: Sidley hosts an asylee/refugee assistance clinic in Chicago, so a lot of times, we help people seek asylum and then help bring their family over and later help those family members adjust status. It’s so rewarding to get to see it all the way through.
Gina: It really is. This particular client fled her village for her country’s capital city when her son was just a baby. Several male members of her family came to the capital city one day and found her and started beating her in public for having fled her village and her arranged marriage without permission, and having brought shame on the Imam and her family. She fled to New York soon after that and left her baby behind with her aunt. When I was at Sidley, we petitioned for her son to come to the United States. He was maybe six or seven at the time, and he’s now a lawful permanent resident of the United States. To see them reunite and then to see her pledging allegiance to the flag and holding her U.S. citizenship certificate—it was mind blowing on several levels.
Kelly: What trends are you seeing in your field? Immigration has a lot of things coming.
Gina: No one can predict at this point how the law is going to change with the new administration. The next four years may be challenging. Regardless of who’s the head of a particular administration or who’s in the White House, we need to ensure that refugees hold on to the protections that they currently have and that the United States continues to honor its obligations under international law. Based on what we know so far, criminal defense cases could create potentially bigger challenges within the immigration arena. It will be important to ensure due process and that the United States continues to give all individuals a right to a hearing if they’re being deported. There are still people coming from various regions of the world that are in turmoil, and those numbers may continue to stay high. For example, cases involving gang violence and gang-related persecution in Central America will probably continue to be a hot topic within my area of practice. The Central American countries continue to struggle with those problems, and people continue to flee, seeking asylum.
Kelly: Is there anything in particular that you’re telling clients who are frightened about what to expect now that there is so much uncertainty in immigration law?
Gina: We do have a lot of frightened clients and concerned pro bono lawyers as well. I have told all of them, especially the clients, that the law hasn’t changed yet. I try to channel the anxiety into action in their own cases. When the fear of the unknown with a new administration creates stress and fear for our clients—most of whom have already suffered from torture in their own countries—I’ve tried to get them to focus on something they can actually control: what evidence can we gather to strengthen the case? Who are our strongest witnesses? When can we set up a testimony prep session with the pro bono lawyers? As counselors, it’s important to focus on the right things at times of uncertainty, one of which is case prep, and another of which is that I’m ready to fight, as is Human Rights First. We will not give up on refugees, or on the pro bono lawyers who step up to fight for them. I’ve also warned clients in certain areas of the country that there are a lot of scams going on right now. People are trying to take advantage of vulnerable immigrants. I tell attorneys to make sure they stay in touch with their clients relatively regularly.
Kelly: Do you have any observations about backlogs in immigration and what they mean for your clients and for attorney volunteers?
Gina: A key part of staffing cases is having partners on the team. Even if the partners are not in the trenches necessarily, at least there’s some continuity if you have to restaff the case with a whole new junior team due to Court and Asylum Office backlogs. The Sidley partners that have been on the asylum cases that I’ve handled have had the right amount of involvement. They’re usually letting the associates do the good stuff, but they’re available in case there is a problem, and overseeing things but not micromanaging. As the backlogs continue, this is very helpful to clients and also to the non-profits like Human Rights First.
Kelly: If someone wanted to get involved in pro bono immigration work as an in-house attorney or in private practice, how would you recommend that they get started?
Gina: If there’s a pro bono coordinator or pro bono counsel in the office who can talk about the options, that’s a good way to get started. If you have no idea what team you want to join because you don’t even know what area within immigration you want to work in, there’s a tool online called probono.net. You can search within an area of law and within your county, and it brings up local organizations. Lawyers should feel free to contact me as well—especially Sidley attorneys and alumni.
Kelly: Now that you’re mentoring lawyers who are in law firms, what are your observations about changes in pro bono in private practice?
Gina: There is definitely a culture of support for young associates who want to take on pro bono cases. I’ve noticed that many junior attorneys have more confidence about making pro bono a part of their careers at their law firm. This is anecdotal, but recent law school graduates have told me in no uncertain terms that pro bono work is something that they absolutely would not give up. I’ve heard that repeatedly, and that’s a good thing to hear if you’re on this side of the equation.
Kelly: What advice would you give to young attorneys who are just starting their careers in private practice?
Gina: To echo some very common advice, finding a mentor is very important—and be patient, because sometimes mentors arrive in your life unexpectedly. At Sidley, I had informal mentors who were awesome, some of whom I’m still in touch with. Additionally, pay attention to both the people you work with and the projects that you really enjoy, because it helps guide your career and your passions. And take control of that as early in your career as possible—from your first week at the firm. Lastly, take ownership of your work and think of yourself as an important member of the team on each matter, rather than just an employee at a law firm. When you understand that distinction, it shows in your work, and it is evident to the more senior attorneys and partners.
Kelly: How would you advise others who are interested in following your career path and transitioning into a public interest position?
Gina: Try to take on work that prepares you for that role and make as many connections as possible with people who do the kind of work you are interested in. Also, stay in touch with your colleagues at Sidley, because there are many ways that Sidley attorneys can be helpful. For anyone who is interested in immigration, work on your language skills whenever you have free time. It’s a broad area of law and it can be tough to do if you don’t have language skills.
Contact Gina at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published January 2017 - UPDATE, Partner and Director of Pro Bono Initiatives, Akerman
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