How teamwork won asylum for a Mexican family
I'm a middle aged lawyer; My days as an athlete, such as they ever were, are long gone. But, I live vicariously through a teenage son who rows as part of an eight-person crew. So I made it a point to read "Boys in the Boat," the true story of working-class kids from the University of Washington who survived the Great Depression, took on the American rowing dynasties, and (against all odds) won a gold medal at the 1936 Olympic Games.
An amazing story of dedication, grit, and teamwork, the book discusses the concept of "swing," that almost mythical point at which a crew pulls its oars so perfectly in unison that the boat and the team become one, effortlessly gliding through the water. According to the book, "'[W]hen that swing comes ... it's a thing (the crew) will never forget.'"
Last November, I had my own small taste of "swing" when a colleague, Corey Hickman, and I won an asylum case for a 21-year-old Mexican woman and her three small children. Our clients fled domestic and gang violence in their home country to make a new life in ours. While their story is dramatic enough to inspire a book, the role that Corey and I played in the nearly two years leading up to the hearing will never be more than a footnote. Still, we managed to win even though -- just a few months before our court date -- the Attorney General decided (in an unrelated, closely watched asylum case) that domestic and gang violence were insufficient grounds for asylum.
Our victory was far less dramatic than that of the boys in the boat, but it was the product of some amazing teamwork just the same. Granted, we had far more than eight crew members propelling us over the finish line. In fact, we had the backing of our entire firm, Cozen O'Connor, who supported us in so many ways as we took on the matter pro bono. We never had to ask for help from any of our colleagues more than once. Many of them -- like our interpreter and my amazing assistant, Tina Rodriguez -- bent over backward to help without being asked at all.
Ironically, neither Corey nor I regularly practice before immigration court, so our crew also included the National Immigrant Justice Center, which originally vetted the case and basically spoon fed us asylum law along the way. And, after 20 or so calls to various churches near my clients' home, we managed to find the First Pentecostal Church of Harvey. The church gave us meeting space so that our client -- who has very little in the way of friends and family for support -- didn't have to brave public transportation every week with her three small children to come downtown for our regular prep sessions. The church also let the kids use its nursery and found them an amazing bilingual baby sitter. She kept them out of our prep sessions, happily occupied while their mother filled us in on the painful details of their past. On more than one occasion, the church even fed our core team, lawyers, interpreters, and asylum-seekers alike.
The little family from Mexico lives in a tiny apartment and -- while things are now looking up -- was struggling to survive in the days before their hearing. They needed almost everything we take for granted: food, warm clothes, car seats, winter coats, and so much more. Our amazing team came through there, too. Without even being asked, co-workers, friends, family, and church members took it upon themselves to gather clothes, gift cards, money, and toys for a family who had so little.
Corey and I came to love our clients, in part for their goodness, strength, and resiliency. In fact, to be honest, we sometimes wondered how we would live with ourselves if we lost their case and had to watch them be deported to danger and possible death. Thankfully, though, we experienced that elusive "swing" firsthand, and every member of our considerable crew pulled together in unison to ensure that didn't happen. Frankly, I don't know if any matter that challenging and demanding -- that emotionally draining -- will ever feel so effortless again. But, I'll tell you this: it's something I'll never forget.
• Julie Trester is a member of Cozen O'Connor's national Labor & Employment practice in Chicago.