By Jessalyn Schwartz
Globally, 2020 has been a difficult year and the immigration legal field has been no exception. Changes, such as new asylum rules, attempts to raise fees and alter filing procedures, and developments in case law, have made an already complex area of law much harder to navigate. The majority of unaccompanied children lack representation in their immigration cases. Representing unaccompanied immigrant children can be complicated, as the majority of these children come to the United States after surviving trauma and leaving families and communities behind to seek safety from unthinkable situations. Further, these children are placed in removal proceedings with no guaranteed access to counsel or an adult to speak on their behalf. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to add further stress on this already vulnerable population, as low-income living and working circumstances increase the risk of contracting the virus, children lose access to supports in educational settings, caretakers are unemployed, and community supports are more difficult to access.
The combination of factors impacting unaccompanied children highlights the many reasons that they require zealous representation in their immigration cases. Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) partners with high-quality pro bono attorneys to utilize child-friendly, trauma-informed practices in this vital casework. KIND’s Washington D.C. field office has been privileged to work with one such pro bono attorney, Ellen Bass, a retired litigator and former Assistant U.S. Attorney, who reactivated her D.C. bar license as a solo practioner to work with KIND to represent unaccompanied children in their immigration cases on a pro bono basis.
Ellen took on her first case at the end of 2016 because she felt concerned and dismayed about the anti-immigrant and refugee rhetoric becoming pervasive in politics and media and wanted to continue to use her law degree in a positive way. After attending one of KIND’s introductory trainings, she began working with a young girl seeking Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). Ellen navigated filing the client’s case with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and has continued representing this client in immigration court for the past four years. But Ellen did not stop there.
Continuing her dedication to the rights of these youth, Ellen enthusiastically took on another KIND case. This time, she began representation of a young boy in D.C. whose case was more labor-intensive and complex than her first. In less than four months, Ellen filed a custody case in family court to obtain the necessary orders to make her client eligible for SIJS. She then worked with the client to both file his SIJS application with USCIS and an application for asylum, providing the client with every option available for immigration relief. Ellen was willing to try creative solutions to seek work authorization for her first client who was looking for ways to support herself and her family after graduating from high school. Through her hard work, both of her clients are now on the path to legal permanent resident status.
Ellen commented that coming to this work as a solo practitioner, when she had previously been with firms or government agencies, was a bit of a challenge. She noted that doing child immigration work as a brand-new area of law was a struggle, but that it is a rewarding and worthwhile endeavor. However, KIND’s mentoring structure made her feel supported and provided the resources she needed to move forward in her clients’ cases. Ellen says with these clients, there are solid facts and compelling stories that make her feel more gratified working on a person to person level, in contrast to representing a company or entity. She likes the experience of working with a real person and the satisfaction of helping such deserving young people and seeing the impact she is making.
The immigration system is hard to navigate, even for seasoned legal professionals, and the expectation that children do so alone is unjust. “It is very hard to not be in control, and when you are an immigrant, you aren’t in control of a lot. You don’t know the language; you don’t have an understanding of the system or what’s happening,” Ellen shared.
Ellen shared, “Without KIND, I would not and could not have done it.” She suggests new attorneys looking for pro bono opportunities should look to KIND if immigration work interests them. She advises, “When KIND says consult your KIND mentor, LISTEN. Do not feel reticent or reluctant to talk to them, they are extremely generous and knowledgeable. It is a hard, steep learning curve, with a lot of paper, but in the end, you have a backup, and you are dealing with a real person who depends on you. That is a good feeling.”
Pro bono attorneys like Ellen selflessly take on these complex matters, seeing the dire need for assistance and lending their time and resources to help clients who may otherwise be unable to obtain immigration relief. KIND is thrilled to spotlight Ellen Bass during Pro Bono Week 2020 and hopes that others will be inspired to follow her lead and find fulfillment through pro bono representation.
Jessalyn Schwartz is a Staff Attorney at KIND.