In the spring of 2018, refugees fleeing to the U.S. from Central America were desperate to escape threats of violence and persecution in their home countries. The Trump Administration’s policy of separating families who had illegally crossed the border was complicating the process of arriving in the U.S. and securing asylum. And overwhelmed immigration advocates struggled to process applications for thousands of families who had fled insurmountable hardships and made the perilous journey to the U.S., seeking relative safety and the hope of a better life for themselves and their children.
In Kirkland’s New York office, pro bono counsel Jacqueline Haberfeld connected with Lawyers for Good Government (L4GG), a nonprofit legal capacity-building organization eager to partner with large law firms to identify opportunities to provide pro bono counsel to immigrant families in need. The timing couldn’t have been better for Kirkland and L4GG to collaborate on a meaningful initiative to help provide immediate relief to these at-risk families.
Together, Kirkland and L4GG developed and launched Project Corazon, a unique remote representation program designed to recruit and train hundreds of volunteer lawyers from dozens of law firms to assist families detained thousands of miles away. Through Project Corazon, lawyers represent asylum-seeking immigrants at crucial credible fear interviews (CFIs), prepare and argue bond hearings for undocumented immigrants detained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) workplace raids, write briefs for overwhelmed immigration attorneys and assist with research projects.
In less than two years, Project Corazon has grown from 250 lawyers from 49 major law firms into a coalition of nearly 700 attorneys with a singular focus — to protect and advocate for the most vulnerable.
Many Kirkland attorneys jumped at the opportunity to provide immediate relief to families by advocating for asylum seekers in their CFIs, the first assessment of the claims of immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S.
During a CFI, asylum seekers, who often have just have arrived in the U.S. after a long, dangerous journey, must present their case to asylum officers by outlining the dangers facing them in their home countries and their government’s failure to protect them from persecution. If individuals have a positive outcome from their CFI, they are allowed into the U.S. and have a year to prepare a formal claim to asylum — but if the outcome is negative, they become immediately removable to the country from which they fled.
The stakes couldn’t be higher — the outcome of a CFI can mean the difference between life and death. Volunteers with Project Corazon collaborate with immigration lawyers on the ground at the detention center in Karnes City, Texas, to gather information and prepare their clients for immigration proceedings. The project’s lawyers then represent their clients by phone for their CFIs, providing legal support for their clients, accountability for the asylum officers and a formal record of the interview.
An attorney’s presence during a CFI can sometimes change the trajectory of the interview moment-to-moment. In one CFI, a client was asked by an officer if he or anyone in his immediate family had been assaulted or killed by the gang he claimed was threatening his life. When he asked what “immediate family” meant, he was told that it meant his parents, siblings, wife and children, to which he replied, “No. No one in my immediate family has been killed.” The Kirkland team, having reviewed notes from his immigration interview in Texas, knew that the client had witnessed his cousin’s execution by the gang and narrowly escaped a similar fate himself — and that he had been directed in the CFI to only answer the questions being asked.
“The lawyer informed the asylum officer that the narrow definition of ‘immediate family’ was preventing the client from providing details about his cousin’s murder, which would amply illustrate the danger he faced in his home country,” said Haberfeld. “Without that immediate connection to a lawyer, he might not have been able to prove his case for asylum, and would have been removed to his home country, where he likely would have been targeted for extreme violence by the gang that brutally killed his cousin.”
A credible fear interview (CFI) is the first assessment of claims of immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. Here’s how the process works within the Project Corazon framework:
Jaywin Singh Malhi, a litigation associate in Kirkland’s New York office and volunteer with Project Corazon, knows all too well the importance of securing dedicated advocates for immigrant clients. Malhi was one of several Kirkland attorneys engaged to help 50 of the 685 workers detained in the August 2019 ICE raid of a Mississippi poultry processing plant — the largest workplace raid in ICE history. Malhi was tasked with representing a father, now at risk for deportation, who fled to the U.S. fearing violence against him and his 6-year-old son in his home country of Guatemala.
With support from his colleagues at Kirkland, co-counsel at another firm and legal service organization partner CLINIC, Malhi advocated for his client through every step of his release from custody — from reviewing prep documents to flying through a snowstorm to argue in front of an immigration judge near the Canadian border, to connecting with 26 different organizations to help the client secure the funds necessary to pay his bond, to coordinating with an official from the Department of Homeland Security to help obtain his eventual release.
“I was lucky because I wasn’t acting on my own,” said Malhi. “I had a network of people around me, including Kirkland support staff, outside counsel at CLINIC and organizations dedicated to helping people like my client, that went above and beyond to release him from detention and reunite him with his son.”
Since Project Corazon started, 175 Kirkland attorneys have contributed nearly 4,000 hours of legal work. In total, more than 5,000 immigrants have received advice or representation through Project Corazon as they navigate a complex and ever-changing immigration landscape.
“The sense of responsibility you feel is immeasurable,” Malhi said. “When you act for corporate clients, you are usually preserving someone’s livelihood, but in these pro bono representations, often you are preserving someone’s life.”