Immigration lawyer helps fatherless boys, adrift in America

By Jesus MosquedaJesus-Mosqueda---EJW-fellow-with-IRP

“How are you, mijo?” I ask Jorge. “Good, pops, busy with school,” he responds with a goofy grin and sad puppy dog eyes. His expression has not changed since the first day I met him five years ago.

I am not Jorge’s father. Jorge’s father abandoned him in Mexico when he was a toddler. In search of a better life, Jorge’s mother strapped him onto her back when he was one and fled to the United States from the state of Guerrero, Mexico. Guerrero has recently been engulfed in cartel violence. Last year 43 students went missing and some were eventually found in a mass grave, tortured and charred. The rest are presumed dead.

Once in America, Jorge’s undocumented mother supported two children on a measly wage well below federal standards, forcing her to make tough choices: move to a better neighborhood or feed her kids. She chose the latter. This decision forced Jorge to grow up in a South LA neighborhood dubbed “Death Alley” for its morbid homicide rate. It is a two-mile stretch of South Vermont Avenue where over 100 people have been killed in the last seven years, mostly young men of color.

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Why I represent Obaidullah

Note: this blog post is submitted from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the author is currently meeting with her client, who has been held without trial for nearly 13 years. Visit shouldntbeus.org to watch a video and learn more about this case.

Anne-Richardson-107x160By Anne Richardson

GUANTANAMO BAY — In 2008, I agreed to represent Obaidullah, then a 25-year-old Afghan man in Guantanamo Bay. I had not met him, had no idea what he was accused of doing. Nearly 800 men have passed though Guantanamo Bay, all of them Muslim, all of them foreigners. Not enough attorneys were signing up to represent them, which required a commitment of hundreds if not thousands of pro bono hours for who knows how many years.

I agreed to represent Obaidullah because I was opposed to the U.S. policy of detaining these men without trial. I believed, and still believe, that a fundamental tenet of our nation is to provide fair legal process to all prisoners or detainees, wherever they may be, and whatever they are accused of. My father-in-law was a POW during World War Two, and I also believe that failing to provide legal process to our prisoners only threatens the safety of our own servicemen and -women.

I was apprehensive before my first visit. I had heard that Guantanamo housed “the worst of the worst,” and I too had been horrified by 9/11. When I finally met Obaidullah, I broke down. He was shackled to the ground in a concrete bunker. He was polite, shy, somehow able to maintain his sense of humor. I have now been to Guantanamo Bay to meet with him some 8 or 9 times and have gotten to know him as a sensitive man who writes lyrical poetry. Like so many men still at Guantanamo, he is not accused of any acts relating to 9/11. He is one of the dozens of people caught in Afghanistan in any number of ambiguous settings, detained for questioning – questioning that has gone on for more than 12 years. Without charges, he cannot prove his innocence. Without a trial, he cannot even be given a sentence.

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Four ways to start delivering on your life-changing resolutions in 2015

David-Daniels-Director-of-Pro-BonoBy David Daniels

It’s already a couple of weeks into the new year and, if you’re like me, your 2015 resolutions to buy less, save more, and never go to bed on big-sports Sundays with orange Cheetos stains still on your fingertips have all but been forgotten. The good news is you don’t have to stay in this dark and guilt-laden place. If you are a lawyer, paralegal, law student, or other professional who wants to ensure justice for our community, then make “an after New Year’s resolution” to commit to changing someone’s life through the power of pro bono.

If taking on a pro bono matter feels as daunting as slimming down the national debt, don’t worry. Public Counsel has numerous discrete opportunities that won’t take much of your time, are packaged with all of the training and ongoing technical support to guarantee your success, and will allow you to meaningfully exercise your legal muscles for someone in need.

Forget the “walking-daily-up-30-flights-of stairs-backwards-and-on-your-knees-health routine” that was supposed to be your pinnacle new year’s commitment, and email us today. These bite-sized legal matters truly are life-altering for our clients and can start our community on a path to a healthier 2015. Here are just a few examples of how choosing to donate your time to Public Counsel today can make all of the difference in the world.

Want more? Click here to sign up for our monthly email Top 10 List of pro bono cases (check the box for Top 10 List to start receiving emails).

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Learning to trust my social work voice through the ‘excitement of advocacy’

Corinna-Espino---USC-Social-Work-Intern-100pxBy Corinna Espino

Public Counsel has been an incredibly dynamic experience as a first-year social work intern. There are different aspects of social work that our professors stress, like the importance of macro social work and understanding the implication of policy, as well as the micro social work, where the interpersonal relationships truly make a difference in someone’s life. Public Counsel has given me the opportunity to dive in with two feet in both aspects, as well as being able to observe and participate in programs that affect Los Angeles and Hollywood community level.

My initial time has been spent working with CARES. CARES was a fabulous introduction to graduate level social work (i.e., understanding benefits, direct work with clients, and working directly with vulnerable populations). I was able to build on techniques and strategies learned in school, like motivational interviewing, and how to build rapport with clients quickly, while at the same time gained very practical knowledge and skills about how to help clients receive benefits.

This also gave me an opportunity to experience the excitement of advocacy. It is a very gratifying program to be a part of, where you feel like you can help and serve their client in a tangible way. It has also given me a perspective on the realities of how social services are run, which is knowledge that can be used in the future in many different areas of my profession, and in turn has awoken my heart of social justice to a whole new arena. The perspective this advocacy work gives me allows me to see the flaws and strengths in the bureaucracy of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services, and learn how to work around it for the welfare of my clients.

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How can a 3-year-old represent himself in court?

Immigrant children at the Nogales Placement Center in Arizona. Photo courtesy of VOXXI.

Immigrant children at the Nogales Placement Center in Arizona. Photo courtesy of VOXXI.

Editor’s note: Public Counsel is co-counsel in J.E.F.M. v. Holder, a nationwide class action lawsuit seeking representation for all children in immigration court that was filed in July. Click here to read more about the lawsuit.

By Beth Werlin and Kristin Macleod-Ball

Each week, in immigration courts across the United States, hundreds of children, some as young as just a few months old, come before immigration judges and are called upon to defend themselves against deportation. Among them is Arturo,* a 3-year-old who arrived at the United States border in April 2014 because family members feared for his life in El Salvador. Although he is only a toddler, the government has put him (named in our lawsuit as “A.E.G.E.”) into deportation proceedings on his own. He has no attorney to help him explain to the court why he should not be deported.

Arturo’s case is not unusual. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, less than a third of children with immigration cases pending in June 2014 had legal representation.

On Tuesday, the child plaintiffs in J.E.F.M. v. Holder, a nationwide class action seeking to ensure that all children in immigration court have legal representation, asked the federal court presiding over the case to add Arturo and two other children to the lawsuit. In J.E.F.M., the plaintiffs are challenging the government’s long-standing failure to provide counsel to children in immigration court and asking the court to order the government to appoint legal representation for unrepresented children facing deportation.

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Step up to the plate for Public Counsel’s Pro Bono Pitch

Pro-Bono-Pitch-widgetOctober is an exciting time for baseball.  But with National Pro Bono Week occurring October 19 – 24, it’s also a great time to renew your commitment to volunteerism.

Public Counsel’s second annual Pro Bono Pitch campaign is meant to encourage attorneys to take on a pro bono matter before the end of the year.

From now through December 19, if you sign up for a clinic or take a case,  Public Counsel will add your name to our Pro Bono Pitch roster and you’ll be in the running to win 2015 Dodgers tickets.

Do you want to…

  • Get experience in federal court?
  • Help a foster youth resolve an outstanding ticket?
  • Assist people going through bankruptcy?
  • Represent an immigrant victim of domestic violence?
  • Aid a family facing eviction?

Visit the Pro Bono Pitch page to see some great opportunities available now and learn more. 

Will you step up to the plate for the Pro Bono Pitch? Even if you’ve taken a pro bono case before, this is a chance to highlight you and your firm and build energy around Pro Bono Week.

Achieving a Healthier Los Angeles by Stabilizing our Neighborhoods

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on kcet.org.

Doug Smith-CDP attorneyBy Doug Smith
A growing body of research is reinforcing what public health and housing advocates in Los Angeles have long known: losing your home can be hazardous to your health.

We shouldn’t be surprised. In neighborhoods across Los Angeles, involuntary displacement is generating significant health consequences for individuals, families and entire communities. When forced out of their homes, residents may relocate to areas with fewer health resources. Displaced families often end up in overcrowded and unhealthy housing conditions, or worse, on the street. And when pushed out of their neighborhoods, residents lose connections to doctors, friends, family and cultural networks that help them stay healthy and safe. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the poor, women, children, the elderly, and members of racial and ethnic minority groups are most at risk of suffering the health impacts of displacement.

Public Counsel represents low-income residents who have seen their homes literally bulldozed to make way for new structures. We work with tenants who face significant rent increases and the prospect of homelessness because the affordability restrictions on their homes will expire in the very near future. We also work directly with residents and organizers in rapidly gentrifying communities, including transit-oriented neighborhoods along the Metro Expo and Gold lines, where real estate speculation is intensifying displacement risks. Skyrocketing housing costs,conversion of rent stabilized units, and waves of evictions are forcing long-time residents from their homes and uprooting families from their neighborhoods. Emerging plans to revitalize the L.A. River arouse these same concerns in low-income river-adjacent communities.

From where we stand, the connection between displacement and negative health outcomes is clear. We have seen elderly residents struggle to access adequate medical care after being separated by hundreds of miles from their long-time primary care physician. We have worked with a displaced tenant whose only option was to live in a garage without running water. We have seen landlords take drastic measures and make baseless claims in order to expel residents from their homes, like forcing families to live in uninhabitable conditions without basic health necessities like heat and working plumbing. In many of the communities we work in, displaced families turn to friends and family for shelter, but the resulting overcrowded housing conditions significantly compromise health and well-being.

A growing body of literature from the public health field reinforces what we are seeing and points to long-term negative health impacts. A recent report, informed by the Alameda County Public Health Department, identifies multiple negative health impacts of displacement, including reduced access to health-promoting resources, increased exposure to violence, and heightened chronic stress. Other research indicates that “social loss” — the disruption of social ties and cultural support networks — can cause psychological effects and increased susceptibility to disease and chronic conditions.

Increasing access to green space, healthy food, medical clinics, and employment opportunities in underserved communities is an important step in the quest to tackle our glaring geographic health disparities. But without a corresponding effort to protect long-term residents from being pushed out, many won’t be there to enjoy the benefits.

Fortunately, the Plan for a Healthy L.A. creates an opportunity to collectively explore the links between displacement and health. Through this process, we can elevate neighborhood stabilization efforts as part of a comprehensive strategy to stem the tide of health inequities.

Community based organizations are doing their part by organizing local residents and engaging in the planning process. In my practice, I work with coalitions like the United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement (UNIDAD) and the Alliance for Community Transit(ACT-LA) that are advancing a framework for healthy, sustainable, and inclusive neighborhood growth that protects and benefits existing residents. Achieving this equitable growth model is a challenge that we must meet.

Here are some of the tools that we can use:

  • Doubling down on enforcement of the Rent Stabilization Ordinance and stepping up efforts to educate tenants about their rights will improve tenant stability and preserve our rental housing stock.
  • A citywide commitment to creating and protecting affordable housing near transit will ensure that low-income residents can continue to access transit and remain in their neighborhoods.
  • Community Plans can help prevent a net loss of housing in our neighborhoods by implementing and coordinating land use tools that both produce new affordable housing and preserve existing affordable housing.
  • Regulating condo conversions will allow us to proactively protect and maintain a neighborhood’s supply of housing opportunities.
  • Enhancing quality employment opportunities and supporting community-serving small businesses can improve the economic health of a neighborhood, not only allowing local residents to remain but to thrive.
  • Limiting incentives and public subsidies to projects that do not displace residents will promote sustainable community growth.
  • Community Land Trusts can expand local control over neighborhood assets.
  • Promoting a model of planning done with people instead of planning done to people will allow local residents to play a meaningful role in authoring the future of their neighborhood.

The Plan for a Healthy L.A. calls for more than hospitals and affordable health care. It is a call to prioritize positive health outcomes in the growth of our city. This commitment to comprehensively analyze future plans and programs through a health lens is a groundbreaking step. But to make our vision for a healthier L.A. a reality, both the Plan and the City’s actions must work to prevent displacement.

Doug Smith is an attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow (sponsored by the Ottinger Family Foundation) at Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro bono law firm. As part of Public Counsel’s Community Development Project, Doug works with nonprofit organizations and low-income entrepreneurs to advance economic mobility and improve affordable housing opportunities in Los Angeles.

In every client I help, I see my mother

Lilya-Dischyan-CARES-clerkBy Lilya Dishchyan

“MOM! Our homeless man is at the door!” my brother and I shouted across the living room to our mother when we saw the weirdly familiar silhouette of our unusual friend. My mom quickly ran to her purse to see what she had to offer him that day. My brother and I had gotten used to his frequent unannounced visits over the years. He was a nice man whom we knew only through the comfort of the locked, metal screen door under which my mom would slide him food stamps or coupons from time to time. This was my first experience with a person battling chronic homelessness. My supervisor, Lucy Petrow, might even call it an early form of CalFresh advocacy.

I grew up in a small duplex apartment in Hollywood with my parents and older brother. As immigrants from the war-torn, newly liberated post soviet country of Armenia, my family arrived to the United States with, quite literally, only the clothes on our backs. The airline had misplaced all of our belongings and my non English-speaking parents knew little about the remedies they could seek for such a loss. Fortunately for all of us, we had green cards, which helped my mother apply for much needed government benefits for our family. Looking back on that time now as an advocate for public benefits recipients, I realize how fortunate we were to have a place to live.

As I grew older, I began noticing the colorful cardstock resembling Monopoly money that my mother used to pay for groceries. I also became aware that not all of the students at my school used meal vouchers to pay for their lunches. It was an interesting revelation when I realized that my family was on welfare. Even in elementary school, I felt the various social stigmas of the aid. Looking back, I understand that it was that very aid that gave my mom the ability to provide for our family. That aid is what helped feed my body as well as my ambition, allowing me to excel academically and go to law school to become an advocate for social justice.

My mother earned a nursing diploma from the nursing college of Yerevan College of Nursing in Armenia. Unfortunately, her degree did not offer her the same job opportunities in the US, so she started attending nursing and ESL classes at a local community college. During her time as a student, she worked two jobs, one of which was on campus as a student worker in the office for students with disabilities. Her campus job inspired her onto a new career path in rehabilitation counseling.

My family transitioned off of welfare after my mother graduated from community college. After about 10 years of schooling, she had two AA degrees, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s of science in rehabilitative counseling; but still she received countless rejections from several different employers for about 5 years. My mom is now employed at her dream job as an academic counselor for students with disabilities at the community college where she first learned English.

This is the kind of success story I envision every time I advocate at the various Departments of Social Services (DPSS) in Los Angeles County. As an advocate with the CARES program at Public Counsel (Connecting Angelinos to Resources and Essential Services), I have been able to help countless individuals obtain the benefits to which they are entitled, despite several inappropriate administrative barriers placed on the aid. In every client I help, I see my mother. I see the importance of the $221 a month in general relief cash aid and $189 a month for fresh groceries. I also understand the implications of having to subsist on these programs. Even the slightest gap in benefits can result in a client’s inability to pay rent, which can inevitably lead to homelessness. I have a special connection with every person I assist because I have been in their shoes. I am thankful to Public Counsel and the CARES program for giving me the unique opportunity to serve a very vulnerable population of which I was once a part.

Lilya Dishchyan is a clerk with Public Counsel’s Homelessness Prevention Law Project. Ms. Dishchyan is a rising 3L at Whittier Law School where she is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Child and Family Advocacy and a Fellow at the Center for Children’s Rights.

An ethics check-up for in-house attorneys jumping into pro bono law

Editor’s note: This article is republished with permission of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) as it originally appeared on acc.com/docket: “The Ethics of Pro Bono.” © 2014 the Association of Corporate Counsel. All rights reserved.

 

Elizabeth Bluestein - Public CounselBy Elizabeth Bluestein and Michael Sposato

As more legal departments and Association of Corporate Counsel chapters move to identify and create pro bono opportunities for in-house counsel and other legal department staff, it is important to consider the ethical rules that impact pro bono service.

Studies show that more than 80 percent of the legal needs of low-income individuals in the United States go unmet. Millions of people each year find themselves in civil court without legal representation. The lack of available legal resources for people who cannot afford to pay for counsel threatens to undermine our legal framework in which laws are supposed to apply equally without regard to a person’s wealth. Pro bono service by in-house attorneys is crucial to help fill this gap in access to justice.

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Even a small pro bono commitment can mean enormous help

This is the third, and final, blog post in a series about managing pro bono activities for busy attorneys that we are publishing as part of Public Counsel’s Pro Bono Pitch. Click here to read the first and second installments.

Sarah-Luppen---Harder-Mirell-AbramsBy Sarah Luppen

We did it. More than 135 lawyers from more than 35 firms and companies signed up to take on a pro bono matter last month. We signed up to help youth and veterans with their accumulated tickets, assist in adoptions, review partnership agreements and tax forms, revise by-laws, and advise on trademarks and logos—among many other things. More than half of those lawyers work in small law firms and in-house legal departments. For many who signed up, the time commitment was small — an evening after work or a morning before — but for the dozens of clients we assisted, the help was enormous.

That is the take-away from Public Counsel’s Pro Bono Pitch: Everyone can help, and a little bit of your time goes a long way.
On October 21, to kick off National Pro Bono Week, I participated in Public Counsel’s Consumer Law Department’s client intake night at the Los Angeles County Law Library downtown. The volunteer attorneys were paired with local law students and met with clients facing a variety of consumer law issues, including student loan debt, mortgage fraud, and other loan scams. I spent the evening talking to an extremely intelligent, self-sufficient woman who had made the mistake, fifteen years earlier, of defaulting on her student loans. Today, she does not have a job or a home, and she owes her lender thousands of dollars she simply does not have. These conversations are the toughest. There are no good answers to a problem like hers.

And that was my job that night — to tell her that there weren’t going to be answers to this problem; that there wasn’t going to be an easy way out of it, or even a hard way. A lot of times, though, these are the conversations that are most valuable to a pro bono client. We were able to discuss her options, develop a plan for going forward, and assure her that her intelligence and resourcefulness would serve her well. I am confident that it will. And though she started our meeting frustrated and in tears, she left with a plan and resolve.

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