The first time I met E in person was in a cinder-blocked visitation room at an Immigration Detention Center in Arizona. I was nervous as I waited for him to be brought in. On some levels we knew each other well: we had spoken on the phone at least once a week for the past two months; filed multiple briefs to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) on his behalf; experienced together the raw devastation when E was joyously granted release on bond only to be denied actual release and held in immigration detention on an automatic stay. Yet on the most basic levels, we did not know each other at all. He was shorter than I had imagined; and I was not white, which he had not imagined. Working with E over the past nine months has fundamentally changed my understanding of what my role as an attorney is, and has taught me the importance—and challenges—of client-centered lawyering.
I began working with E on his removal case last spring (Spring 2017) as a full time student in the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic. E is a middle-aged man who had lived in the United States for over forty years- since he was two weeks old. By the time my clinic partner and I began representing him on appeal before the BIA he had been incarcerated and subsequently held in immigration detention for almost two decades. In May, we flew down to Arizona to visit E in person. I continued working on E’s case during the Fall 2017 quarter as an advanced student. The BIA had remanded his case back to the Immigration Judge and I wrote and filed multiple briefs to the Immigration Judge, arguing that he was not deportable and that the immigration case against him should be terminated.
Throughout E’s case, I thought in terms of winning. How likely was it that he would win? What plans did E have for after he won? In my legal and humanitarian mind, winning unquestionably meant E staying in the United States—the only home he has only known since he was two weeks old. The more I researched and wrote, the more fervently I believed that we were in the legal right and that the judge would rule in E’s favor. But this experience ultimately forced me to rethink what “winning” means.
I was forced to confront it when, in the weeks leading up to his final immigration hearing, E told me that he could not stand another day in detention. His resolve to keep fighting while locked up and away from the “free world” had waned as his case dragged on. His final hearing, for example, had been rescheduled twice. Eventually, he told me that even if he won, he wanted to be deported unless DHS waived its right to appeal. This was because he knew that during any appeal period, he would remain locked up and this detention could go on for months or even years. Over the phone, I urged E to think about it more; we had such a strong legal case, I was certain we could win.
But when I met E in person for the second time right before his final immigration hearing, I could see that he had made his decision. Though, intellectually, I disagreed with it, I recognized that we had given E all of the information he needed to make an informed decision, and that as his attorney I had to respect his wishes. I also was acutely aware that my reality was not his reality. It was much easier for me to think about “fighting” when I was not the one in detention, facing regular harassment and mistreatment.
E’s final hearing lasted about 45 minutes. I engaged in thirty minutes of oral argument with the immigration judge, after which the judge offered both parties an additional week for further briefing before rendering her decision. Knowing that E’s first priority was to get out as soon as possible, I asked for a moment to confer with E in private. Alone in the courtroom, E fervently maintained that he could not wait another week; he could not even wait another 24 hours. He wanted the judge to sign his removal papers right then and there. I challenged him. I believed that we could persuade the judge, and that at the very least should accept the additional week just in case he changed his mind and decided to continue fighting. But as I sought to convince E one last time, I realized that in so zealously focusing on winning E’s case as I defined it as a lawyer, I had lost sight of helping E “win” his case as he saw it. He gave me a wide smile—“I hope they roll me out today,” he said.
Telling the judge that E requested to be removed from the country was one of the most difficult things I have done. The silence hung heavy in the courtroom for several moments while we all processed the finality of E’s decision. We learned the next day that E was deported mere hours later.
My experience working with E and together fighting for his rights over the past eight months has fundamentally changed my understanding of my role as an attorney. As attorneys we are, first and foremost, advocates for our clients, and must respect their wishes even when we disagree. And yet, how do we strike the balance between ensuring our clients have enough information to make an informed decision, and not pushing our own opinions on them? How do we reconcile accepting their decision when we fervently disagree?
These questions of client-centered lawyering took on new meaning in the last weeks of E’s case. The crucial first step, I realized, is putting yourself in your client’s shoes. For example, E’s final deportation hearing had been rescheduled twice. For me, at worst, it was a mere scheduling inconvenience. But for E, it meant four more weeks of suffering in detention and, as importantly, being stripped of certainty of his release date. E once told me that he found his decades of being in prison more bearable than the 10 months he had been in indefinite immigration detention, because at the most basic level he had a date to count down to. Continuing to fight the case would take that away from him, again.
Yet, putting yourself in your client’s shoes can be challenging. How do you do so, for example, when you have close to nothing in common? E had been incarcerated and detained for almost as long as I have been alive—he did not know what “email” was. On another level, how does one build trust and empathy when your only contact is by phone? In our first two months working with E, we had to get to know one another, build rapport, and give E disappointing news about his case, all without the basic luxuries of knowing what the other person looked like or reading the subtleties of body language.
But in the end, putting myself in E’s shoes was crucial for understanding his decision, and it continues to be important for me in processing it. I continue to reflect on the broken system that had put E through the wringer: E had been transferred, without warning, to another detention center where he was subjected to unannounced searches and other harsh conditions. In one search, they took away his crayons and his incredible artwork. And I continue fighting internally between feeling like we had “lost,” and realizing that my lawyer mind’s framework of winning was not the only one, nor necessarily the correct one. E is now in Mexico living with his ailing father for the first time in 20 years on the farm where he spent summers as a kid. For him, after 20 years in the system, that was winning. That thought puts a smile on my face.
The third and last time I saw E was in a small, cinder-blocked legal meeting room after his hearing, separated by a thick glass divider. I remembered back to the first time I met E, when he asked me, where are you from? Seattle, I had said, then—my parents are immigrants from China, but I was born in Seattle, when I realized what he was really asking. It was not until we stood six months later in the cold room on opposite sides of the glass that I truly understood the significance of his question. What separated the rights I, the daughter of immigrants, was entitled to as compared to those that E, the son of immigrants who had lived in this country for two decades longer than I have been on this earth, was entitled to, was that question: where are you from? There was silence as we looked at one another. I fought back tears. But in his eyes, the sigh in his shoulders, his wry smile, I could see that, at last after nearly two decades, he was at peace.
“The weekend is right around the corner in the free world,” he said. He reached three fingers through the small hole in the glass, and I grasped them with two of my own. “And I’ll be there.”