Six Questions for RMIAN’s Executive Director

Mekela Goehring talks about the need to equip volunteer attorneys for the world of immigration law

Mekela Goehring is the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, which connects detainees in the Aurora Immigrant Detention Center with pro bono lawyers who can represent them in various proceedings. Law Week sat down with Goehring during the immigration law seminar RMIAN presented with the CBA CLE in Last Week in Denver. 

For RMIAN, how important is it to put on these trainings for attorneys interested in volunteering for immigration cases?

I think it really can’t be overstated. We’ve been doing this program together with the Colorado Bar Association CLE since the early ’90s, and it was really the first mechanism that we had to connect attorneys … with clients who needed pro bono representation at the immigrant detention center. 

There’s a tremendous need to pull in attorneys who don’t necessarily practice immigration law but want to support this community and individuals who are caught up in the system. And for RMIAN, [this program] has been the single greatest source for pro bono attorneys. It gives them an opportunity to get, somewhat, thrown into the deep end of the pool in terms of learning this material but gives them enough resources so they hopefully feel confident reaching out and taking on one of these cases.

From what practice areas do RMIAN volunteers typically come?

It’s totally across the board, which is one of the things that I love about this. One of my very favorite parts of being at RMIAN is this process of connecting people whose lives wouldn’t have been connected otherwise. So you may have a corporate lawyer who’s working at a big 17th Street firm … and then that person is paired with a child who’s applying for asylum or special immigrant juvenile status.

What does an attorney without immigration experience need to learn in order to provide good representation in one of these pro bono immigration cases?

I think some of the things that we try to cover with [immigration law] training is not only the substantive law and the framework, and a general understanding of what is the Immigration and Nationality Act and how are the regulations then defined from that, and how does that go down to policy memos that agencies are formulating.

But I think the other piece that we try to cover is more the practical sides of things, because that’s what can scare [volunteer attorneys] off. Things that are as simple as what does the courtroom look like? Who is in the courtroom with me when I get there? Where do I sit down? The fact that this is an administrative law context can be both good and bad for pro bono attorneys. The court is not bound by the federal rules of evidence, so you don’t have that more structured system, which I think can be both be in your favor and against you at times. People who are in that system all the time know how it works, but if you’re not, … it can feel really foreign.

With the federal government having instituted a “zero-tolerance” policy for border enforcement and stepping up deportation proceedings, have you seen an increase in the number volunteer attorneys this year in immigration cases?

It’s huge. I think we saw a huge spike in 2014 when there was a lot of media attention on the surge of unaccompanied refugee children who were coming across the border. But this year has really been unprecedented in terms of the number of lawyers who have reached out to us, who have wanted to support our work. I would say the number really skyrocketed in response to the family separation policy at the border, that we started to see that hit in May and June. … [A]nd then how it impacted the detention center that was directly in our backyard, with 60 moms and dads here, we had a tremendous outpouring from attorneys who wanted to represent clients in those bond hearings and those parole requests.

At this training that we have today, we have about 120 individuals. We did a training that was specific to asylum law in a partnership with the Colorado Lawyers Committee and also the Immigration Law Section of the CBA, and we had over a hundred attorneys signed up for that as well, so that’s pretty unprecedented for us.

Has it been a challenge for your organization to keep up with the demand for immigration law training?

It’s not something that we’re complaining about at all. I think the biggest challenge for us is we may get a surge all at once of a lot of attorneys who want to take cases right then, and of course we’re working in a context where we’re the only legal service provider for the immigrant detention center that has a thousand people any given time, so our needs are steady and constant throughout the year.

So the challenge for us is trying to hopefully spread people out enough over the course of a year, and also just the process of screening cases, writing referral memos, connecting volunteer attorneys and clients and then providing that mentoring that attorneys who are new to this field absolutely need in order to have a good experience and not feel like they’re totally drowning.

What do you say to attorneys who are interested in taking immigration cases but are apprehensive, perhaps because they don’t practice in that area? 

If volunteers don’t step forward — even if they feel apprehensive about the fact that they’re not subject-matter experts in this particular field of law — imagine what it would look like to be in a different country, in a court proceeding with a court and legal system that you didn’t understand and having to fight for your life. And that is the reality for many of the children that, if we can’t find a pro bono attorney [for them], are having to navigate that system on their own. 

So [we’re] hopefully creating a sense of empowerment [for volunteers] that with their legal training and their dedication to this work they are going to make an absolutely huge difference — a difference that’s tenfold in terms of increased chances of success for clients in court. 

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