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Photo: Johanna Hickman & Christine Webber headshots collage

DC Pro Bono Week 2022 Profile: Helping Unaccompanied Minors Find Safety in the U.S.

By Jessalyn Schwartz

The recent influx of migrants to the District has shined a renewed spotlight on the difficult immigration landscape of the past decade and beyond. Prior to and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, immigrant children have been fleeing gang violence, governmental instability, lack of educational opportunity, and other traumatic conditions in their home countries and arriving in the United States without a legal parent or guardian. These unaccompanied children (UCs) are expected to navigate the incredibly complex U.S. immigration legal system alone, placed in removal proceedings in immigration court without the right to counsel, and often forced to defend themselves against highly skilled attorneys representing the government.

Central to their success is the need for zealous, high-quality legal representation, which could not be achieved without the involvement of pro bono attorneys. KIND (Kids in Need of Defense) partners with area law firms, companies, and solo practitioners to pair child clients with strong advocates to utilize child-friendly, trauma-informed practices and KIND’s holistic model of service to obtain legal relief and provide a better future for these UCs.  Christine Webber and Johanna Hickman of Cohen, Milstein, Sellers, and Toll, PLLC are two such stellar attorneys who have served as counsel for a KIND client since 2014.

Johanna, who has focused her legal career on representing entities rather than individual clients, recalls the first big wave of youths coming to the southern border in 2014, the largest number of UC arrivals to date at that point in time. She thought it was important that the legal profession step up to meet the need and felt a strong sense of obligation to help. In her view, the immigration system is already so complicated and remarkably limited for vulnerable populations to access, then adding in children to make their way through the process is not something they could possibly do without an attorney. This KIND case was not Christine’s first pro bono matter and not even her first immigration case. However, this was her first time working with a child client and she was excited to be among a group of several Cohen Milstein attorneys partnering with KIND to serve approximately 10 children. Christine comes to this pro bono work with a background in civil rights and employment class action suits. She has experience explaining the intricacies of the law to non-lawyers and individuals with all levels of education and legal acumen but shares that it is a whole other level when working with children.

Johanna and Christine recall how young their client was when the representation began: a combination of incredible resilience and strength who made the dangerous journey to the U.S. on his own, but still a young boy, who was excited about the hot chocolate machine the firm had in their office. They both were on the client’s case for the entirety.  They represented him through the required state court proceedings, his petition for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), and made the strategic decision to adjudicate his application for a green card in immigration court instead of the more administrative agency process. This decision led to more contingency planning, testimony preparation, and a willingness to be vulnerable, swallow their pride, and be ready for whatever might come their way in this unfamiliar venue.

Christine attributes a large amount of their success to Johanna’s dedication and how she dug into the law and made sure the team knew what needed to be done. Both attorneys also cite the vital contributions of excellent attorneys and other personnel at Cohen Milstein along the way, as well as the importance of the partnership the firm had with KIND.  In their words, KIND’s deep expertise, model documents, trainings, and the ability to call and chat to work through any issues, were all incredibly valuable. As Johanna put it, KIND has a 10,000-foot view that isn’t just specific to the case. KIND can see across hundreds of cases and give perspective on what can be expected, which helped to inform the team’s strategy.

Their case, like all legal matters, had its hurdles and its successes. In general, their young client was growing up as the proceedings went on. Christine and Johanna discovered that their representation was sometimes as much about helping their client navigate the process of growing up, getting through school, acclimating to life in the U.S., and supporting family, as it was about managing the legal aspects. Christine shared that representing a child was such a unique and interesting experience that required a holistic approach. Johanna found that while it was sometimes difficult to focus on what the child client wanted and not necessarily what might have been in the attorney’s determination of their best interests, it helped teach her to empower clients to understand the legal implications in their cases and to make decisions for themselves.

Both attorneys were surprised by the amount of time each step of the process took, and how clear it was that the immigration system is “pretty significantly broken.” Christine said that one important milestone was having the client’s removal proceedings administratively closed, to ensure there was no imminent risk of the child being deported. There were other wins that were celebrated, but until the green card approval, their client wasn’t able to feel secure and have the opportunities the team all wanted for him.

When asked about advice for other attorneys interested in pro bono cases, with KIND or otherwise, both Christine and Johanna stressed the importance of a strong team and partnership, especially when the case is not in your area of expertise, as most pro bono work is not. Whether working with an organization like KIND or with other law firm attorneys, Christine said ensuring that you are supported and operating effectively in the same way you would with paying clients is key. Johanna echoed this sentiment and highlighted that these cases bring opportunities for newer attorneys to take on leadership roles, gain experience in court, achieve professional development goals, and ensure that their practice aligns with their values.

Christine Webber and Johanna Hickman had a considerable impact on the life of a young man who is now able to prosper and plan for his future as a legal permanent resident in the U.S. KIND is thrilled to highlight these fierce advocates for Pro Bono Week 2022 in the hopes that other attorneys will be inspired to follow their lead in stepping out of their comfort zone to tackle pro bono challenges as Christine and Johanna have.

Jessalyn Schwartz is a Senior Attorney, with KIND DC.

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