Immigration Law

Asylum-seekers in Chicago receive pro bono legal aid from ABA staff

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Reflections of immigrants in a marble wall at a Chicago police station with the Illinois state flag

Immigrants and asylum-seekers who were transported from the U.S. southern border to Chicago have been housed in emergency quarters in police stations and airports. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

Chicago’s highly publicized migrant crisis was no abstraction for Travis Wimsett. Families were literally camped out at his neighborhood police station last year as city government struggled to house the waves of recent arrivals coming from the U.S. southern border.

TravisTravis Wimsett is one of the ABA attorneys who worked pro bono to assist asylum-seekers. (Photo courtesy of Travis Wimsett)

“It was heartbreaking,” says Wimsett, a senior associate general counsel for the American Bar Association. “I passed by several times on my way to work and on the way back from work, and I wondered what could I do—maybe as an attorney, maybe in a different role.”

Not surprisingly, he jumped at the chance when two offices within the ABA were invited to lend a hand. Under a state-supported effort organized by The Resurrection Project, lawyers from across Chicago have staffed legal clinics to help migrants fill out paperwork that potentially can transform their lives.

During the sessions, the mostly Venezuelan attendees have been screened to determine their eligibility for two expanded federal programs: Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a designation for foreign nationals from certain countries, and work permits known as Employment Authorization Documents (EADs). The latter documents can allow recent arrivals to become financially independent as they try to navigate the U.S. immigration system over what could be a journey taking years.

Working through translators, volunteer lawyers use the information they receive from migrants to complete the applications. The paperwork is reviewed by on-site representatives of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security agency that makes the ultimate decision.

Wimsett, a Latin American studies minor in college who spent time in Argentina and Panama, says he did not delve deeply into the stories of his clients during the relatively brief interactions. But he recognizes they had been through a lot.

Soldier in the jungle next to a warning signA Panamanian border guard stands by a sign warning migrants that the Darién jungle is not a safe route to travel, with deadly snakes, cliffs and erratic river currents. (Photo by MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images)

“When they’re telling me that they made the journey on foot from Colombia to Panama, I know in my head that that’s crossing the Darién Gap, which is topographically just a completely taxing and strenuous area to get through,” he says. “They’ve risked it all to come to a place that holds promise for them and that they believe will give them a life that’s dignified.”

Besides the seven lawyers from the ABA general counsel’s Chicago office, each of the three lawyers from the ABA Center for Pro Bono also participated in the initiative. Among the latter group was Assistant Staff Counsel Marissa LaVette, who, as an individual, has donated clothing for migrant children.

She says welcomed the opportunity to do something even more tangible for a vulnerable population. Her experience at two sessions reinforced the idea that migrants are regular people “who are really, at the end of the day, just like us,” she says.

The ABA General Counsel’s Office staff members pose at the Chicago headquarters of the association. (Photo courtesy of Travis Wimsett)

Rapid response

The free services on behalf of migrants has involved the wider Chicago legal community. Nearly 600 legal professionals have offered their time since the regular series of clinics began in November 2023, says Linda Rio, a consultant to the Chicago Bar Foundation who has overseen recruitment.

“People stepped up in really unprecedented numbers,” she says. “It was huge for the legal community, as well as the clients, to have everybody coming together in this really extraordinary way—and really fast. Stuff has to happen really fast in a crisis, and this is a crisis.”

While the ABA’s Wimsett and LaVette are somewhat modest about their own contributions—equating it with basically being someone’s attorney for a day—the pro bono effort, collectively, is believed to have had an outsize impact.

To date, more than 7,200 applications have been submitted on behalf of recent arrivals in Chicago through the legal clinics. Anecdotal information suggests many of the migrants have been successful in receiving TPS or a work permit, says Jane Lombardi, senior director of Immigrant Justice Partnerships with The Resurrection Project, an advocacy organization for immigrants based in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Statistics were not available.

Jane“Even if they’re helping one or two people a day, it’s life-changing for the applicant,” says Jane Lombardi of The Resurrection Project. (Photo courtesy of Jane Lombardi)

“It changes peoples’ lives, absolutely,” Lombardi says. “It is protection, oftentimes, from deportation, and it’s the security of having a Social Security number, a work authorization. You can access better paying jobs and safer jobs. Even if they’re helping one or two people a day, it’s life-changing for the applicant.”

More than 44,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago since August 2022, according to the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communication. Most have been sent by bus or airplane by the administration of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who also has made the sanctuary cities of Denver, Washington and New York destination points for new arrivals as the political debate about immigration and border security has intensified.

The situation in Chicago appears to have become less chaotic. City officials have long since discontinued using police stations and Chicago’s two airports as temporary migrant housing, and the headcount at city-run migrant shelters is down to about 6,000 people, the city says, compared to nearly 14,000 in December. This is at least partially due to Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration imposing a 60-day time limit at the facilities, WBEZ reports.

Lombardi of The Resurrection Project isn’t ready to declare mission accomplished, and the legal clinics for recent arrivals have continued into the summer. But organizers are examining ways to use the model for the future needs of immigrants, including the undocumented community, she says.

“There’s always going to be immigrants arriving to Illinois, and the demand far exceeds the available services,” Lombardi says.

See also:

Asylum-seekers face ‘serious shortage of lawyers’ to help them

ABA ‘strongly opposes’ Biden’s executive order restricting asylum; ACLU readies lawsuit

ABA Commission on Immigration: Explainer on “The June 2024 Proclamation and Interim Final Rule on ‘Securing the Border’”

ABA Commission on Immigration: Explainer on “Biden Administration’s June 2024 Executive Actions to ‘Keep Families Together’”

Mike Ramsey is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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