Veronica Walther wasn’t planning to spend July 4 in an immigration detention center. But when she learned she could volunteer to help detainees at Karnes County Residential Center—a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility outside San Antonio holding women and children—she cleared her schedule, bought a plane ticket and reserved a hotel room and rental car.
She also brought her semiretired interpreter mom, who volunteered for attorneys who didn’t speak Spanish.
For a week, Walther assisted about 20 women mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—Central America’s troubled Northern Triangle—who had been detained after entering the U.S. to seek asylum for themselves and their children because they said they feared for their lives in their home countries. “All of them took enormous risks to get to the border to avoid being killed,” said Walther, who speaks fluent Spanish. “I didn’t meet a single woman who I thought was lying or even embellishing her story.”
Lost in the noise over the Trump administration’s policies at the border is the difference between illegal immigrants and people seeking legal asylum. Walther, who runs her own law firm in Minneapolis, is now organizing other attorneys to volunteer remotely, helping prepare legal briefs on behalf of asylum seekers, or to volunteer in the detention centers themselves. She’s also handling pro bono the asylum case of a Honduran family she met at Karnes. They recently moved to Minneapolis with the help of a sponsor family after being released—Walther met them on her plane home.
Walther is one of a growing number of lawyers, interpreters and other professionals across the U.S. claimed as members of Lawyers for Good Government, a nonprofit whose founder says it’s nonpartisan, but progressive. (The group said that 10 percent to 15 percent of its 125,000 Facebook followers are active members, by either volunteering or donating.) Little known outside legal circles, the organization was launched as a Facebook group the day after Donald Trump was elected president. L4GG screens attorneys such as Walther—who heads the group’s Minnesota chapter—and funnels them to legal services groups. “L4GG has people who identify as independents, Republicans, Democrats—it’s all across the spectrum,” she said.
After the first Trump administration ban on travel to the U.S. from Muslim-majority countries, the group directed hundreds of lawyers via the web to airports across the nation, coordinated volunteers with legal services groups and had international members hand out know-your-rights flyers in more than 20 languages at airports around the world. L4GG also runs programs in areas including prevention of voter suppression and environmental protection. Adam Cohen, a Westchester, N.Y., attorney who joined L4GG’s board of directors last year, said there are a lot of attorneys out there “dying to do something, not just donate money.”
But showing up isn’t all that’s needed—many practitioners have little or no experience in these arenas. Full-time civil rights advocates such as Terri Burke, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, welcome the outpouring, with the caveat that volunteers need to be trained and managed to be effective.
There’s a “huge need” for lawyers at the border, Burke said. “I’ve asked our staff to research how we can connect these volunteer attorneys to these public defenders.” But Burke stresses that donations remain critical: “The money is still very important in order for us to do what we need to do.”
“It’s up to people who are willing to go down there and stand up for these people.”
While the ACLU has said it’s hiring almost 100 new employees to supplement its 436 staffers, L4GG has only one employee: founder, president, and executive director Traci Feit Love, a Harvard Law School graduate and former litigator for DLA Piper, one of the biggest law firms in the world. She and her board have been figuring out how to direct L4GG’s volunteers—a significant chunk of the 1.34 million attorneys in the U.S.—to make them useful.
“For us, the question is really how can we connect this massive network of lawyers from all over the country,” said Love, 41, who works out of her Atlanta home. The answer, in part, is to work with established organizations in need of help that aren’t really set up to handle the recruitment, training and management of volunteers, she said.
L4GG’s latest big initiative is Project Corazon, which in early July started providing legal services to reunite immigrant families split up by the Trump administration. More than 40 major law firms have joined the effort to send lawyers for weeklong stints, donate money and provide other resources. “We are trying to take some of the burden off of the legal services nonprofits,” said Jackie Haberfeld, the head of pro bono counsel for the New York and Boston offices of Kirkland & Ellis, a member of the L4GG project.
“The most important thing about Project Corazon’s role, whether it is central or whether it is supportive, is that the immigrants and their children be represented,” said Haberfeld.
Kirkland associates Giselle Sedano and Brandon Short spent a week earlier this month working with asylum seekers at ICE’s Port Isabel Service Processing Center, near the Texas-Mexico border. Short said immigrants who get access to attorneys have a much better chance of understanding the complicated process. Both lawyers said they worked with at least 30 mothers and fathers who had been separated from their children. “The nature of our system is that it’s up to people who are willing to go down there and stand up for these people,” he said.
“Our laws provide for people to come into this country who are suffering.”
Changing perceptions about asylum seekers is crucial, said Haberfeld. “There’s a lot of focus on the idea that these immigrants have somehow broken the law,” she said. “It’s essential to understand that our laws provide for people to come into this country who are suffering under certain circumstances and apply for asylum.”
Immigrants facing deportation have no right to an appointed lawyer if they are unable to afford one, or if no one volunteers. Only 37 percent of potential deportees are represented—and just 14 percent of those in detention centers, according to the American Immigration Council. “It’s not just family separation; there are all kinds of terrible detention stories,” said Haberfeld. “We hope that we’re building a cadre of people who will continue to do the work, even when this particular crisis has passed.”
For years, Republican and Democratic administrations typically didn’t prosecute asylum seekers who crossed the border, except if they had done it before and were deported, said Steven Schulman, the head of law firm Akin Gump’s pro bono counsel and a former president of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel. The U.S. is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, and in it “we have agreed not to penalize people for this misdemeanor,” he said. Schulman contends the administration is “trying to rig the system against asylum seekers.”
Spokespersons for the U.S. Department of Justice and ICE declined to comment.
Schulman sees L4GG as playing a “huge role” in supplying lawyers to help protect immigrants’ rights. For lawyers who work for small firms that lack pro bono practices, L4GG “acts almost as a virtual pro bono counsel.”Walther, whose small firm serves primarily low-income Hispanic clients, said joining L4GG has a direct relationship to her practice. “It was a relief thousands of people were banding together, because it meant we could actually do something instead of just sitting on the sidelines not knowing what steps to take,” she said.