Pro Bono Perspective: A Chronology of Going Home

by Craig Fansler, Wiley Rein LLP

Hearing Day

From Left to Right: Craig, Attorney Wiley Rein; Juan, Client; Ben, Legal Assistant Wiley Rein

Sitting in the Arlington Immigration Court on the morning of the hearing, I looked back at our client’s family.  On one side of the bench, his mother and two sisters were visibly worried.  Other family members sat next to them for support.  At the other end, his seven-year-old daughter was calm: no one had told her that her father could be deported that day.

And then the judge entered, and our client appeared on the video screen.  Today was his hearing for cancellation of removal, where he would ask the judge not to deport him to Guatemala.  Like most detainees in Virginia, he was detained at Farmville—three hours away from the court—and a small television monitor would tell him his fate at the hearing’s conclusion.  He was 26 and testifying in a trial for the first time.  His testimony would alter the course of his life and the lives of his family members, who filled the back benches of the courtroom.  A bad result would mean separation from his family and deportation to Guatemala, where he had not lived since entering the United States as a lawful permanent resident as a small child.  Win, and he could stay with the rest of his family in Virginia, where he could return to his job and help raise his two U.S.-citizen daughters.

Before the Hearing

To be sure, we had told our client of the risk that he might be deported.  In fact, he knew before we told him; he had watched countless others leave the detention facility for hearings that resulted in deportation.  Our client’s hearing was the result of some bad decisions.  He got mixed up in the wrong crowd, leading to a serious arrest before the age of 25.  Yet he looked like he had turned a corner after this arrest.  He was a success story with a bright future.

We hoped it was not too late.  We spent many hours with our client preparing for the trial, talking to his family and witnesses, talking to old employers.  These people told us how, after his arrest, he had turned a corner.  He was a hard-working father, working two jobs, devoted to his family and community, and committed to setting a good example for his children.  But his recovery was cut short when Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reviewed his earlier arrest.  Review led to detention, and ICE informed him he would be deported.  His last chance was to convince an immigration judge of what he had already convinced those around him: that he had indeed turned a corner.

Convincing an immigration judge to cancel removal is a time-intensive process.  For an unrepresented detainee—without access to phones or family members to collect records and contact people who can write supporting letters—it is near impossible.  One recent study of detainees in a New York immigration court found that only 3% of unrepresented immigrants are successful in seeking cancellation of removal.  This figure jumps to 18% for those represented by a lawyer.[1]

Merely having a lawyer can make a world of difference.  CAIR Coalition has a lot of great ones, who acted as mentors and guided us through the difficulties of immigration court practice.  CAIR Coalition attorneys themselves can represent only a small fraction of the thousands of Virginia detainees every year, so they depend on volunteers.  Our team—consisting of Wiley Rein lawyers Rachel Hunnicutt and myself and legal assistants Ben Dahl and Jessica Barrera—spent several weeks preparing witnesses for trial, compiling official records, writing a legal brief, calling employers and instructors from rehabilitation courses, and then calling everyone a second and third time to make sure they did not forget the court deadlines.  It was a lengthy process, but a very rewarding one.  The case delivered on all the promises that led us to take the case in the first place: meaningful stakes and all the buildup and anticipation of a trial, with witness testimony and exhibits.  The clients are surrounded in detention by other people going through the same process, many without a lawyer, and are grateful for a lawyer’s help and advice.  Like all detainees, our client knew we could not guarantee the result.

After the Hearing

The result, though, is a picture I will always remember.  At the end of the hearing, the judge said those three magic words: you can stay.  The judge then left the courtroom, but not before telling the family they could come up to the monitor.  I will never forget seeing our client’s family crowd around the television monitor.  No longer was it used for our client to learn his fate.  Instead, he now had control of the airwaves.  Family crying, he said: I’m coming home.


Craig Fansler is an attorney with the law firm of Wiley Rein LLP based in Washington, DC.



[1] Accessing Justice: The Availability and Adequacy of Counsel in Removal Proceedings New York Immigrant Representation Study Report: Part 1, 33 Cardozo L. Rev. 357, 383 (2011).