Pro Bono Publico


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.



  1. Anonforthis says:

    The situation in Dilley is really tragic. Conditions are bad enough that history may compare it to how we treated the Japanese during WWII.

    I’m an immigration attorney. I see three main areas that immediate help:

    1. Our “family” detention centers in places like Dilley (where, by the way, families are often separated). Spanish-speaking attorneys who go down there to help do a great deal of good. Fundamentally, though, the problem here needs to be fixed at a higher level. These centers are an outrage.

    2. Individuals who have lived a long time in the U.S. but remain undocumented. The church says that these individuals should be able to remain in the U.S. and that they should be able to work here. The Supreme Court has recently frustrated President Obama’s attempt to get more of these individuals work permits and protection from being deported. This is something Congress needs to fix; however, attorneys may be able to help in some isolated cases.

    3. Refugees. The U.S. isn’t nearly as welcoming of refugees as most of Europe has been. The vetting process is extremely stringent, and compared to countries like Germany, we just don’t let a lot of refugees in. This is a government issues; as Elder Holland recently said, “governments today are not responding to the refugee problem urgently enough, nor on a large enough scale.” However, those who are here in the U.S. still need assistance. Some cities have refugee centers that provide assistance to refugees, and there are non-profits such as Lifting Hands International that help refugees in the U.S. (primarily by making sure their needs are met when they first arrive) as well as provide help to refugees in places like Greece. It’s extremely easy to help if you’re able to provide financial assistance (you can even buy recommended items from Amazon and have Amazon ship them to refugee camps in Greece) and if you live in a city with a refugee center, it’s also incredibly easy to donate your time.

    It’s good to hear that BYU Law has opened an externship for students at Dilley. Kudos to the professors and students there who donate weeks of their time to that work.

  2. Thanks for your and all J. Rueben Clark law society service. I just wish I knew a solution to this Central American immigration/asylum issue that would be beneficial for those fleeing violence, the United States, and the future of those countries. I don’t see this situation improvement or being sustainable.

  3. South to North migration( either economic or fleeing violence) will be the toughest issue facing western civilization in the next 100 years. (Along with the rise of China)

  4. I also like to know how the author and the commentator plan to ever stop the tide? While I know that a significant numbers of families are fleeing Central America due to specific incidents of violence, I also know that plenty of them are fleeing a bad situation. The is system (or any other country for that matter- see Europe) cannot handle the numbers at this level and be able to distinguish between real and fake asylum claims. It just floods the system and leads to backlog where few people ever get sent back. In addition, if all the non-gang members leave the country, won’t the situation never improve in those countries? And while the US is a relatively rich nation even with all its national debt, having a consistent stream of refugees from every single Latin American country has to financially strain the system, especially when they are classified as refugees and costs the gov’t more than a regular immigrant. Please don’t think that I’m not sympathetic to the plights of these people, my heart breaks for them and I see the humanity in refugee/asylum laws but the US is the nb 1 destination in the world, and the accessibility through modern transpiration is just increasing… Just look at countries in this hemisphere where it would be hard for any human soul to deny – all three Central American countries, large segments of Mexico, Haiti, Venezuela… And that’s not counting people who are living in abject poverty like Brazil, DR, Jamaica, Colombia, etc…

    And no one talks about all the parents of these Central American kids leaving them behind in the United States and being raised by their grandparents and the streets. Without their parents to raise them, it’s no wonder why gang violence is so bad. ( and I realize that there are plenty of other socio-economic factors)

    Basically I see a dilenma of being cold hearted or creating an unsustainable system.

  5. Looking at my last comment, I was not trying to accuse the author or commentator of anything negative. My concerns are probably beyond the scope of this article. Just feel when their is a discussion of migrants and refugees, the entire complexity of the situation is not mentioned.

  6. The work Becca does is incredible and inspiring. And I loved learning that BYU Law has set up an externship program. Thanks for highlighting this, Kevin.

  7. Wow, Kevin. I appreciate your kind words. I was thrilled to see so many JRCLS lawyers and church volunteers at the clinic this morning. I also loved the diversity of the applicants at the clinic — I met with individuals from Myanmar, Eritrea, Cameroon, and Mexico. I am looking forward to continuing the tradition of a JRCLS pro bono project each year.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Becca is seriously a superhero. She does incredible work, and I was thrilled to participate in a small way, It was a great event.

  9. Awesome. I wish our chapter would do this kind of thing.

  10. I’m a natural born citizen and I need help badly. I broke my back and will never be the same with extreme pain everyday that is getting worse. I can’t even walk very well in church on Sunday. Please help as no one will take my case as they all want easy cases and group cases that bring in more money.
    Stephen Miller, BS: Criminal Justice

  11. Thanks to all for their efforts.

    A note on female leadership in the church: This kind of event planning and organizing is very much the kind of work that women already do in the church through Regional and Stake Public Affairs Councils, which tend to have a lot of women in leadership in the stakes/regions where I have been involved.

    For units participating in the Just Serve program, the stake public affairs person often plays a key role in recruiting and vetting worthy causes.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    Naismith, I have long had a stake PA calling, and you’re right that PA has a lot of women doing terrific work for the Church.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Naismith, I actually blogged about the phenomenon you mention once:

  14. I am so glad to hear of those who are able to help in this effort. The perception of our allowing in a “flood” of dangerous “fake asylum” seekers needs to be fought. With all the volunteers and donations being made, we’re allowing only a small stream of people who have overcome so much just to get this far. Considering the number of refugees we’ve helped (and continue to help) create, there’s too much sentiment of “they should have thought of that before they became peasants”. The excuses we make are too many, trying to excuse our feelings about “them” in the face of long help Church policy and more recent specific direction that much more needs to be done.

    On an unrelated note, it’s not helpful to throw the gender assertion into your example. It’s pedastalizing to imply that we’d get so much more done if women were in charge. It rings of “women are just so much more caring”.

  15. I have to disagree with you Frank. Working in the immigration field, I have seen so many fake asylum claims. Everyone with the same story…. Now this is not to say that there are not plenty of real cases, just that when you have this number it’s almost impossible to figure out real and fake stories. Also, how will any of these countries improve if everyone not in a gang immigrates to the US?

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    I did not mean to suggest that women are necessarily more caring, only that they can be equally (if not more) competent, and the Church could benefit from better making use of that largely untapped resource. I was contrasting the success of our current leadership with what the results would have been if it were up to my own (somewhat tired) leadership.

  17. Civil disagreement is welcome, Steve. I’m glad to hear you work in immigration, but am concerned that you seem to think that other countries have anywhere near even a 1% gang rate. Wouldn’t it be better to let those few non-gang immigrants come, bomb/drone all the bad ones to death, then let the good ones go back? And what cost for these countries to improve? How many innocents need to be beaten, raped, and/or die on the hope that their goodness without power will somehow change the hearts of those oppressing them?

    We are a nation of immigrants. Too often we told the English, Irish, Italians, Chinese, and Jews that there’s no room here, and they should just stay in their own countries, so they can “improve”. History is littered with those we’ve refused, and this country built atop the work of those we’ve accepted. These people are making an impossible decision through many hoops even before they get to our immigration system based on their own experiences far beyond anything you could know. If the brief stories you hear tend to seem the same, maybe you should consider there is more reason aside from trying to game the system. These are people, your brothers and sisters, not Skittles.

  18. Frank,

    If they were to return to their countries after the country was improved, that would be fantastic. However, that is never going to happen. I think the west needs to do more in a lot of areas to improve the lives of those people there.

    Calculating illegal entries based on that formula, 408,870 illegal aliens evaded detection in fiscal 2016, for a total of approximately 817,740 illegal entries into the United States last year. And this does not take into account legal immigration and refugees.

  19. I know that there are logical reasons why stories are the same. I also know immigration lawyers have forums where they go over stories and techniques of who and how an applicant was found to be a refugee. Like I said it’s a tough issue.

  20. Anonforthis says:

    An immigration attorney can lose their license to practice law for lying to the government. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but most immigration attorneys stay well clear of asylum applicants who ask them to create fraudulent applications. It’s not worth the risk.

    On the other hand, there are some immigration judges who deny 95%, or 97%, or even 100% of the asylum cases that come in front of them. These judges are essentially handing out death sentences to some of these individuals.

    Keep in mind that some of these asylum-seekers face certain death if they return home, whether it be for their religion, their politics, their sexual orientation, or other factors. I work with immigrants in the Mormon Corridor, and several of the people I’ve assisted with asylum are LDS and RMs. They face varying degrees of persecution in their home countries, including government death warrants.

  21. Frank,

    This is not to disagree with you that are plenty of real Central Americans that are fleeing violence. Many of these like you said are our brother and sister in the gospel. This is something very important. But here is an opinion that I feel has some valid points too

    The flow of migrants from Central America continues, and the attitude of the Obama Administration is to let them come and stay. The rationale is that most are fleeing violence which poses a threat to their safety, so therefore they should qualify for permanent residence, either as refugees or asylees. Under present law, they cannot remain simply because they seek better economic opportunities.

    Map of Central AmericaBut from the beginning of this influx, some commentators have questioned the narrative that violence is its main cause. Two years ago Guatemala’s ambassador to the United States, Julio Ligorria, stated that crime was not the main reason his countrymen were leaving. He noted that most of the people departing were from the northern part of Guatemala, rather than the east where crime has been much more of a problem. He said that most of migrants were seeking economic advancement, or were young people seeking to reunite with their families in the U.S.

    Further confirmation that violence is not primarily driving the migration came recently from a report by ERIC-SJ, a Jesuit-run research and social action center in Honduras. The survey of Hondurans with relatives who had migrated found that 77.6 percent of the migrants left for economic reasons. Only 16.9 cited violence as the reason for their departure.

    But many immigration advocates will not let such findings disturb their narrative. Some evidently are even willing to use fraud to advance it. The watchdog group Judicial Watch obtained documents from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) revealing that one advocacy group counseled migrants who arrived illegally to claim falsely that they had “a credible fear” of danger in their home countries in order to obtain asylum. More worrisome, the documents also revealed that DHS was aware of the deception but allowed the claimants to stay anyway.

    In recent years, asylum claims at the border have gone up sharply, and the word of this strategy seems to be getting around among illegal aliens. Jan Ting, a law professor and former immigration official, testified before Congress that “[M]any illegal border crossers don’t run from the Border Patrol, but instead seek them out to make asylum claims.” Currently, there is a backlog of 450,000 “credible fear” cases pending before federal immigration courts.

    The rise of bogus claims for refugee status and asylum poses a serious threat to effective immigration law enforcement. If this trend continues, economic migrants making false claims of persecution and danger have the potential to overwhelm us. This in fact is already happening in Europe, where huge numbers of migrants have caused great concerns in the countries where they have settled.

    The media typically depict these migrants as Syrians seeking refuge from the violence of that country’s civil war. But the reality, as even the European Union’s statistical agency concedes, is that less than half are Syrians. Furthermore, they typically pass through several countries before ending up in countries like Germany and Sweden where public assistance is the most generous. The latter suggests an economic motive for coming, rather than a concern for safety.

    A reasonable reform for both the U.S. and Europeans to consider is generally denying residence to migrants who first cross other countries. Also, it would be most helpful to require stricter standards for people claiming refugee status and asylum. Specifically, they would have to prove that they face direct and personal threats, rather than a general sense of danger. All too often claims based just on the latter are approved.

    There are hundreds of millions of people around the world who would like to improve their economic lot by migration. If we don’t tighten restrictions for refugees and asylees, we will encourage them to game the system and come. Massive numbers we can’t handle would be a tragedy for us and for the new arrivals as well, as our country comes to resemble what they fled. The time is ripe to nip economic migration in the bud. If not, the consequences won’t be pretty.

  22. Steve, if you’re going to quote a website, please provide a citation.

    I’ve never liked the “other’s should help first” argument. Always reminds me of Scrooges retort, “Are there no workhouses?”.

    People should be allowed to seek out the best opportunities for themselves and their families. The US is a very rich country who is very miserly with what it has, coming up with any number of excuses to not help others or even themselves. As I said before, the excuses have been the same throughout our history, just the players have changed.

  23. Frank,

    First off let me apologize for not providing a link. Second, I agree with you that the US and the rest of the 1st world has failed in many cases to properly help their fellow brothers. In some cases, like Haiti, many people have tried to help but for various reasons it has unfortunately not worked. Your statements have changed from asylum claims to a general argument for a libertarian open border argument. While I respect your opinion, I have to disagree with you on the impact that would have on the West and the economic success and freedom not only for western society but the whole world. I agree with everyone on here about the need to help people facing danger, and I respect the work of the law society of volunteering their time and talents to help these people. I just disagree with the policies and lack of sight of how the current migration/refugee situation is playing out. I would prefer international safe zones and support policing these areas. I do not see a bright future for these countries if these migration policies continue. The goal should be that most refugees to one day return to their native lands and build it back up, not just leave it to criminal organizations.

    In addition, besides the stories told by this article and commentators which I have no reason not to believe are true, I have heard from elementary teachers in south salt lake about immigrant kids either getting status through asylum or some sort of “extreme hardship” and then immediately leaving for said home country for months at a time. This is seen repeatedly.

    There are just a lot of different sides to the immigration issue

  24. Anonforthis says:

    “Extreme hardship” has absolutely nothing to do with refugees or with asylum. It’s an entirely different category, and exists to provide aid to U.S. citizens. It has nothing to do with how difficult conditions are in a foreign country.

  25. Anon,

    I realize that and that is why you can see I separated the two. But the “extreme hardship” waiver for 601 applications are meant for US citizens but the benifit is for the undocumented. And the main root cause of it, and its expansion by this administration, is to act like an amnesty. Chain migration and our family reunification policies make it so that the best way to gain citizenship now is to cross the border and someone will get legal status eventually, and then boom.. You got your ticket. The easiest way to get a familial relationship to a US citizen (or now visa holder) is too actually be in the US. And the extreme hardship goes into the fact that all applicants claim fear of violence and crime from Latin America, and then when they get their citizenship and ability to travel, the first thing that many do is to go back to their native country(as stated by the stories told to me by Elementary school teachers in south salt lake)

    That’s why I added “extreme hardship” to refugees to my anecdotal story about students. I don’t know the individual stories and I imagine that not all were refugees. I didn’t want to paint a false picture.

  26. But I think my comments have distracted from the point of the article. A comment from the thread about gov’t policy started the discussion, and while I repeat, I respect the service the J. Rueben Clark law society is giving to those in need, I do disagree with the overall current immigration policy, and concerned with how the west is going to handle future mass migrations when it is mixed with a humanitarian crisis

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