LESSONS LEARNED AS AN AMIGA

By Eliza Klein, Retired Immigration Judge, elizakl@gmail.com

I have been an attorney for 32 years, the first 11 of which were in the Boston area as a solo practitioner, concentrating in immigration and criminal defense. For a little more than 20 years, I was an Immigration Judge - in Miami, Boston and Chicago. At the end of January I retired from that position and am now working of-counsel to a firm in Aurora, IL, helping them to develop an immigration practice. My family dynamic also changed during this time - I raised my stepson through his teen years and then raised my daughter as a single parent. A few years ago, I married a childhood friend and relocated to the Chicago area. In doing so, I left behind my colleagues who had known me since I first started practicing and my many friends, some of whom I had known since early childhood. It has been throughout a constant adventure, in which I have grown in unforeseen ways. I recently joined the Amiga Facebook group, and was asked to share my experiences with my fellow Amigas. 

In my mind, the practice of law should be a challenge and an adventure. How you practice should reflect your values and priorities, and should adapt as your life itself evolves.

1. Find a Mentor

I was introduced to immigration law through Harvey Kaplan, who wanted to introduce a course at my law school, Northeastern University. Because I was on the curriculum committee, I was able to get his course into the curriculum. Since it was not taught while I was in school, he offered me an internship in his office during my third year. Harvey is one of the greatest immigration lawyers in our country, and has taught, mentored and inspired many immigration lawyers. I worked for him for a year, before opening my own practice, during which I learned how to defend people subjected to workplace raids, against charges of marriage fraud, and against deportation. I learned asylum law and criminal defense. I prepared briefs for the BIA and the First Circuit Court of Appeals. I joined AILA and the National Lawyers Guild Immigration Project, where I met many seasoned and brilliant immigration defenders. Because Harvey himself garnered such respect, I quickly was accepted into this dedicated group.

Immigration was a natural fit for my intellectual curiosity and my personal interests. I had majored in anthropology as an undergraduate, and studied child development in Kenya. I knew from my own experience how difficult it can be to navigate a foreign culture, and how easy to run afoul of immigration laws. After I had lived in Kenya for about a year, my mother came to visit me. We were "detained" by an overzealous immigration agent in Tanzania because we had crossed the border without getting our passports stamped, something I had done many times because there was never a border agent present when I entered or exited from the remote road in the Western side of the country. I was able to bypass the onerous fines by pointing out that I had signed our names at a check-in post between Lake Manyara and Masai Mara - thus obviously not having the intent to bypass inspection. Because I was able to speak Swahili, I could convince a senior official that it was not our fault. But it was a terrifying experience, and embarrassing that it happened in front of my mother, who was just beginning to see me as a mature adult. So immigration was a natural choice for me. 

2. Keep Costs Low

When I established my solo practice in 1983, I sent out a business announcement saying that I took “unprecedented delight” in announcing the opening of my office, and it was true. I was delighted to be on my own, and to accept difficult cases which required significant research and dedicated advocacy to win. The first years of my practice were actually the least stressful, because my living expenses were minimal and I had only myself to support. I worked out a deal with a local attorney where he provided the office, phone, and reception services in exchange for 10 hours a week of my work. I found used books (the I&N Decisions) from a local library at a deep discount. So I was able to dedicate my time to the cases I wanted to accept. 

Research in those days was done at the Social Law Library, which was really more social than law. I regularly ran into my former classmates and we spent excessive amounts of time chatting about the practice of law. But researching cases took a lot of actual physical work - getting to the library, finding the book, turning the pages. I got to work by riding my bicycle. Now, because I spend so much time on Facebook, I have to plan to exercise. 

3. Choose your cases

My unique setup allowed me to take on immigration clients whose cases other lawyers had given up on, either because they were too time-consuming or because they seemed sure losers. The people I had met through Harvey referred me a lot of my first cases. I researched, plotted, argued, and won. It was exhilarating. I loved fighting the good fight, especially knowing how much my clients had at stake. My clients were very grateful, and so was I. I really felt like the most fortunate lawyer around. Fortunately, I had scads of time and loads of energy and so I was able to win almost every case I took. I was very dedicated and prepared, and loved to argue. My clients came to me downtrodden and feared they had already been defeated, but then we pulled out the wins and they were incredibly grateful.

4. Don't specialize too soon

I also took on court-assigned criminal defense case, which allowed me to provide better service to my immigration clients and gave me invaluable trial experience. I handled domestic cases, again to serve my main client base but also to understand better what people have to go through when their life falls apart. The trial skills I developed helped me tremendously in immigration court, which has less formal rules and tends to not bring out the best in lawyers.

5. Be a Mentor

During the 11 years I was in practice, I worked for two non-profit agencies recruiting, training, and mentoring volunteer attorneys. I coordinated these services with other legal aid agencies, and together we formed the PAIR Project, which brings together volunteers from large firms with the legal aid providers who have more experience in immigration and asylum claims. The impetus for this was the raid at a local racetrack as a consequence of which numerous Central Americans were detained. Our coordinated efforts eventually led to a precedent BIA decision setting out the principle that IJs cannot rely on a respondent's silence to establish alienage. Matter of Guevara, ID 3143. http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/eoir/legacy/2012/08/14/3143.pdf This was an incredibly rewarding experience, in which I worked closely with Lory Rosenberg, Dan Kesselbrenner, and Deborah Anker, among many others.

6. Know the enemy and keep them close

One of the agencies I worked with was VOLAG, an agency which resettles refugees. At this position, I worked extensively with INS to streamline processing of refugees getting their green cards. It made me nervous, but I learned that the government sometimes tries to do, and does, the right thing. I became friendly with the District Director, and after he retired, he worked with me. 

I was a staunch defender of my clients, and the trial attorneys, Immigration Examiners, and judges I appeared in front of respected me. But I was also very respectful of them. I stood up to some judges in criminal, and immigration and probate court who were outrageous in some regard, but never had to do this twice. Be forceful, but kind. 

7. Do what is right for your family and you, but take risks

I was in a long-term relationship and became pregnant unexpectedly. My partner and I had decided to separate, and I lost my daily connection with my stepson. When I became pregnant, I decided to create my own family. As a solo practitioner, this was daunting. When I was seven months pregnant, I argued a case at the 1st Circuit, Gebremichael v. INS, (10 F3rd 28, 1993) which I had just taken on the appeal. The stakes were high - my client was at real risk of being deported to Ethiopia, where he had suffered torture. Because the immigration judge had decided his being tortured because the government wanted to find out where his brother (who had escaped prison) had gone, was prosecution and not persecution. I was incredibly nervous going into the oral argument and worried what that emotional state would do to my baby. Once I walked up to the podium, the adrenaline kicked in and I was no longer nervous. I did not even get out my first sentence before the judges began grilling me. It was a fabulous experience.

I had an unplanned C-section and returned to work 3 weeks later. My recovery was so fast - I had post-partum euphoria for four months. Just when that wore off, my daughter began sleeping through the night. Until she was three months old, she came everywhere with me. I nursed her while interviewing clients. When she was six weeks old, I took her to a couple of INS interviews with me. She would not take the bottle I had brought and her fussing convinced the INS examiners to approve two very difficult adjustments I had. I put her in part-time day care, which became full-time by the time she was six months old. Everyone was absolutely wonderful to me everywhere I brought her. But eventually I realized I could not work the long days I needed to keep my practice thriving and began looking for other opportunities. 

I applied for a position as an immigration judge because I loved being in court more than any other aspect of my work and I figured that would be a good fit. I was offered a position at the Miami Court, and although I had never been there, I thought it would be an interesting place to start this new phase of my career and to raise my daughter. 

Just prior to getting the appointment, I had been elected the chapter chair of the New England Chapter of AILA. I knew I would miss the extensive network I had cultivated in the Boston area. I lost the daily contact with my multi-layered community of immigration colleagues, law school and childhood friends, and family. But I love an adventure, and I adapted to the weird new world of Miami and EOIR with nary a hitch. I joined the local Friends Meeting, and made the most of the wonderful atmosphere and climate. I would leave work, pick my daughter up from daycare and head over to Miami Beach for a swim, an outdoor shower, and dinner at the News Cafe to watch the moon rise over the ocean. This would be in February, a dream come true for a native of New England. I made friends with another new-mother-new-immigration-judge-new-to-Miami and we have been an incredible source of support to each other all these years. 

8. Have flexibility but follow your heart

My daughter's father was a wonderful support even though we were no longer in a relationship. He visited us frequently, and I frequently brought my daughter back to Boston to be with him and to visit my family and friends. Although I loved Miami, I requested a transfer back to Boston two years after my appointment, so she could grow up near her father. This was important to me because my own father had moved away to Chicago after my parents' divorce when I was 8, and after that, was not a part of my daily life. I wanted something different for my daughter and her father. Although I loved Miami, it was good to return home.

The immigration judge position was wonderful for a parent and as an attorney who got sick of managing the business end of things. I was never particularly good at making money, it was just not my main goal. As a judge I had a stable and decent salary, paid vacations and sick time, and financial security. When I first became a judge, the salary was not much more than I had been earning in private practice. Two years after my appointment, the immigration judge salary was altered and I got a huge raise. Although I had begun to save for retirement when I was in private practice, as a government employee I would have a pension and the government's contribution to the Thrift Savings Plan. I was never good at planning to make money for myself, but I lucked out. 

When my daughter was fifteen, I married a childhood friend of mine. Our parents had been best friends in college, and he claims he loved me since we met at age five. He was living outside of Chicago and I was coming frequently to assist my dad, who was ailing. When we decided to marry, he initially moved from Chicago to Boston to be with us, and then when my daughter graduated high school I got a transfer to the Chicago court so he could be at his home. 

It was very stressful trying to incorporate someone new to my daughter's life (she had known him all her life, but not very well) just a few years before she was going to be heading off to college. She was not happy that I relocated before she even started college, and she does not like that I am not living in her home town now. This was a difficult decision for me because I put my own interests above hers really for the first time since she was born. My husband has been wonderful and it is because of him that we were able to get her through school with no debt. This was really the most difficult time for me as a parent - being at that "sandwich" phase of life taking care of an elderly parent and teenage daughter, and embarking on a new romantic adventure. It was very emotionally fraught but exciting too. My daughter now likes my husband and his sense of humor. She is now in Ethiopia, where her father is from, for a few months to learn Amharic and research the treatment of Somali refugees. She is taking with her a little bit of both of her parents. In other words, we all survived. 

9. Follow your heart in your career as well as in your personal life

For twenty years, I loved my work as a judge. The position could be stressful, and we were subject to many incidents of bureaucratic foolishness but the work itself was incredibly challenging and rewarding. It was so important to the people appearing before me; all of them, interpreters, lawyers and respondents. I felt honored to have the position and strove to honor the role. 

Over the years, the laws became more restrictive and punitive, and the analytic framework more complicated. Although IJs are not pressured to decide cases any particular way, after the 1996 IIRIRA law, there was much pressure from the government to pretermit applications for 212c, to define two convictions of simple possession of marijuana as an aggravated felony trafficking crime, to treat DUI cases as crimes involving moral turpitude or crimes of violence, to treat everyone in custody as a mandatory detainee. I resisted these pressures throughout but some precedent decisions mandated bad results.

Mandatory detention was an issue that affected me professionally and personally. In fact, the only decision that I issued that resulted in a precedent decision was about mandatory detention. The case is Matter of Saysana (24 I&N 608, 2008) in which the BIA overruled me on an issue of mandatory custody. They were reversed by the District Court in Massachusetts but it took them years to cave in in other jurisdictions. I feel I was vindicated but I remain deeply disturbed by the fact that vast numbers of people have been wrongly deported, denied the opportunity to apply for relief, and held in custody for months or years, because of what I believe was a rush to judgment and a tendency to take the easy way out.

My relationship to my work as a judge fundamentally changed in the Spring of 2014 when our government began detaining women, children and teenagers fleeing violence in Central America. I was handling the detained docket in Chicago and suddenly started getting cases from the border for Credible Fear determinations. I could not always make a finding of Credible Fear but could not justify to people that they had to remain in custody and would be returned to such violent conditions as exist in Central America. It began to make me sick. It invigorated in me the desire that I had early in my career to do hands-on work helping people and taking cases that I could believe in. I left my IJ position three days after I sent my daughter's last college tuition check out, the earliest possible moment without jeopardizing my family. 

Since February, I have been working of-counsel for a firm which is looking to expand into the immigration field. Once we build enough immigration business, they will bring on an associate and I will train that person and then bow out. I have a lot to learn about the practice of immigration law. I do a lot of research online so unlike the old days when I walked to the library, now I go to the arboretum nearby to get exercise. I no longer run into my former classmates to discuss what is happening and I no longer am in daily contact with my judge colleagues whose friendship I treasure. Once again, I have a stake in the outcome of my clients' cases - many of the people I consult with have no chance under the current law but most of them are not an "enforcement priority.” I feel sad and drained some days because I cannot offer solutions. But, I no longer feel that I am part of the problem. I recently returned from a week volunteering at the Dilley Family Detention Center in Texas - this was an amazing experience and made me feel so very grateful that I am not longer part of the government that unjustifiably keeps women and children in jail.

I can say that I continue to have unprecedented delight in my career and my life. It's been real. The only advice I can give is from Woody Guthrie: take it easy, but take it.