We are two New York City lawyers who had a few things in common: we were both looking for a meaningful opportunity to use our skills to help someone adversely affected by our unstable world, and we are both named Mary Davis and live in the same building.
One of us-retired Acting New York Supreme Court Justice Mary McGowan Davis-knew about the American Immigrant Representation Project (AIRP), established by the Honorable Shira Scheindlin and Faith Gay, and later learned about its work on the Immigration Justice Campaign alongside the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and the American Immigration Council. While neither of us had handled a full immigration matter before-or even tried a case in a very long time-we knew that the vast majority of immigration detainees have no lawyer at all. We felt certain we could learn, and be of help to someone in need.
We were given extensive training materials prepared by the Immigration Justice Campaign, and made available in a convenient website. The promise of weekly phone conversations with our mentors Ally Bolour, Ilana Greenstein, and Lauren Major, assured us that we would have adequate guidance and support.
We both had some proficiency in French-Mary McGowan Davis is fluent, having just returned from a decade living in Paris, and Mary Rothwell Davis had long ago double-majored in French and spent a year at the University of Nice. Thus when S.U., a French-speaking gentleman seeking asylum from Republic of Congo-Brazzaville, appeared as a prospective client, we were in. We were presented with a well-screened case; the client's vital documents and supporting material had already been obtained from a relative. The case was awaiting preparation and filing of an asylum petition, to be followed by an Individual Hearing, which is the trial on the asylum claim.
The Elizabeth Detention Facility, close by Newark Airport, is camouflaged among industrial warehouses. Inside the windowless, nondescript building, we met S.U., our client. He told us a sad tale of becoming involved in the 2016 democratic presidential elections in his country at a time of great hope, serving as a local officer to a candidate who brought a message of reform, transparency, and opportunity for young people in the country. S.U. himself had a new baby and a growing business, and was excited for his country's future, after more than three decades of corrupt rule by an autocratic president. Alas, the president interfered with the electoral process and retained his office. Those who had opposed his candidacy were systematically rounded up by security forces and detained in secret and inhumane prisons. Many were not heard from again; others reappeared with signs of torture and abuse. There was no due process for those detained. S.U. had watched as the situation deteriorated post-election and over the course of 2017, and the security police moved in on him, closer and closer. By fall of 2017, he knew he faced imminent detention with dire consequences.
S.U. made his way to Newark airport in September 2017, where he asked for asylum. We interviewed him several times and prepared both a Declaration-his personal statement-and a petition for asylum. A paralegal from Weitz & Luxembourg, Magda Murphy, provided us with pro bono translation assistance for court filings. Before we filed, however, we received new information: the security police had sought out S.U. at his place of business in December and pillaged the store, causing the employees to flee in fear and the business to close permanently. Thus we knew the danger to him was still ongoing and very real. We adjourned the case to develop this part of his claim.
Trial was held in early April. S.U. spoke from the heart about what he had suffered. The hearing room was quiet and well-organized; the judge, who was hearing the case remotely in Connecticut, was attentive and did not rush us. We did let the government counsel and the court know that we were volunteers and learning the ropes, but the trial proceeded quite smoothly. After testimony and cross-examination, S.U. was granted full asylum, the government waived appeal, and he was released that evening. The power of that proceeding to transform his life took our breath away, and left us elated that we had been able to play a role in that successful outcome.
First Friends, a wonderful volunteer group that assists detainees, along with the Refugee Lighthouse at Church of the Incarnation in Jersey City, are providing S.U. with life-saving transitional support as he makes his new home here and seeks to prepare for reunification with his family. These groups effectively meet desperate needs with skill and speed, needs that that most of us are unaware exist.
Many hands worked to bring S.U. to the start of his new life in America. Assisting this kind, intelligent and courageous gentleman, whose determination and optimism both moved and impressed us, has been a tremendously rewarding experience.