Attorneys from time to time are supposed to do pro bono work (short for pro bono publico, “for the public good,” meaning (legal) work for the disadvantaged without compensation). I just now returned from such a pro bono effort, and I’d like to tell you a bit about it.
There is a Church-related organization called the J. Reuben Clark Law Society, which basically consists of Mormon lawyers. I’ve been a member for many years. Long ago for a couple of years I was the chair of the Chicago chapter; since that time I’ve been on the Chicago board. The activity of our chapter (as I suppose is common) ebbs and flows over time; when things are clicking we typically get together at a downtown law firm for lunch once every other month, maybe with an invited speaker.
Today the Chicago JRCLS participated in a pro bono clinic to help people complete their applications for United States citizenship.We partnered with a faith-based group called World Relief that is very experienced in this kind of work, and held the event in a Lutheran Church in West Chicago. A couple of weeks ago World Relief held a training session for us attorneys to teach us how to fill out USCIS Form N-400, which is the lengthy and complicated application for U.S. naturalization.
We set it up with two shifts, one for the morning and the other for the afternoon. I signed up for the morning shift. There were lots of Latinos there, but I didn’t meet with any; the people I helped were from Iran, Pakistan and India. (The form takes at least 45 minutes to fill out.) I was really happy to help these folks on the final leg of their journey towards becoming citizens. (I’ve only attended a citizenship ceremony once, in a federal courtroom in Chicago when a friend of mine was naturalized; it was a very moving experience.)
One of our JRCLS board members who was instrumental in organizing this activity, Rebecca Van Uitert, just returned from spending a week volunteering at the family refugee detention center in Dilley, Texas, where she and a team of 16 other volunteers from the law firm where she’s the director of pro bono, Fragomen, spent long days for a week counseling female refugees from Central America for their asylum hearings. The stories she heard from the women she counseled were brutal. (She missed her wedding anniversary during the week, the second time she has been working with refugees when her anniversary rolled around.)
I showed Becca an article from the latest Clark Memorandum (BYU law school alumni publication), about two BYU law professors (Kif Augustine-Adams and Carolina Nunez) who had recently volunteered to help refugees in Dilley (It turns out Becca was the one who suggested to the professors that they volunteer there, especially since they are both fluent Spanish speakers.) Augustine-Adams describes how she immediately opened her heart to the work they would do there when she met her first clients: “Two 14 or 15-year old girls came into the trailer with their mothers. They looked just like my teenage daughters, their long hair wrapped up into buns on the tops of their heads. But they were fleeing violence I wouldn’t wish on anyone: fleeing rape by gangs, extortion, the possibility of being captured by gangs for use as sex slaves. Meeting those girls made every minute I spent at the facility vitally important.” BYU Law has now established an externship program at Dilley for its students.
I’d like to close with two take-away thoughts. First, the Church is missing out by not giving women a greater leadership role. Our current chair for the Chicago chapter is a woman, and Becca is on our board, and but for the leadership of these two women this event simply would not have happened. The reason is that it costs World Relief $200 a person to process these applications. They used to have a grant from the state to cover the cost, but in the current budget mess that grant has evaporated. Therefore, if we wanted to help 50 people apply for citizenship (the minimum to put on a clinic), we were going to have to come up with donations of at least $10,000. I’ll be honest with you, I was highly skeptical that we would be able to raise that much money from our members. But our chair and Becca pushed; they came up with a way to get preliminary commitments so we could evaluate financial support for the event. And then they and other board members started asking others outside the Society if they would support the event. And lo and behold, they not only made the $10,000 minimum, they were able to arrange for sufficient contributions to process applications for 100 people, or double the 50-person minimum. (They wisely were able to leverage effectively the Church’s call to help refugees. Lots of area Mormons wanted to help but had no idea what they could do; this was something concrete they could contribute to.) I was thrilled by their success, and sheepishly sent them an email that included the line “O me of little faith.” If I still happened to be the chair, this event simply would not have happened. That was some fierce, jiu-jitsu, kickass leadership, the kind that has a vision and can get things done. More of that, please.
Second, I have to admit it has been nice recently to have a sense of pride about my Church. It’s tiring to constantly have the Church playing catch-up from the rear of the pack on issues I care about such as LGBT rights. But this last little while has been a season where the Church has really shined. From the prominence of Mormons among the Never-Trumpers, to the Church’s compassionate approach to immigration, to its strong sense of empathy towards Muslims, the Church is on a roll lately. Pride may be one of the seven deadly sins, but every once in a while I like to be able to have at least a little of it for what my Church is doing.