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Kids in Need of Defense (KIND): Microsoft and Angelina Jolie Galvanize Legal Community in New Initiative to Protect Unaccompanied Children

Children Alone

Imagine that you are fifteen years old, and you have made the painful decision to flee your home country because your parents have abused you for years and no one has come to your aid.  You reach the United States, but instead of finding safety you are placed in a jail cell.  You don’t speak English.  The guards do not speak Spanish.  No one seems to care if you live or die.  You then must go to immigration court – alone – terrified what the judge will decide.  Will you be allowed to stay in the U.S., or will you be sent back to face the dangers in your home country?

That was the tragic reality of Juan Pablo Lopez Cruz of Honduras – until he received pro bono legal representation.  “Because of my attorneys’ help in telling my story, the judge gave me asylum, and now I have permanent safety in the United States,” said Juan Pablo.  “My attorney changed my life… by being there.”

Juan Pablo is one of the fortunate few who have found safe haven in the United States through pro bono representation.  Each year, roughly 8,000 unaccompanied immigrant children arrive in the United States – to find a family, to escape hardship and hopelessness, to flee persecution and torture, or even as victims of trafficking for forced prostitution or other illicit purposes.  The stakes are impossibly high for these children – if they are apprehended, as most are, they face immigration proceedings and the likelihood of deportation to their countries of origin.

Unlike most Western industrialized nations, the United States provides no appointed counsel for unaccompanied children in immigration court.  Consequently, the vast majority of unaccompanied children go through immigration proceedings without a lawyer.  Children with little or no education and meager English language skills are pitted against trained government attorneys before administrative judges.  They must do their best to navigate a highly complex system with arcane rules, and they face the same standards and burdens of proof as any adult immigrant.  Without counsel, the children scarcely understand either the procedures they face or the options available to them under the law.  Yet asylum seekers fleeing persecution who have obtained representation are eight times more likely to be granted asylum than unrepresented applicants, according to a recent analysis of Department of Justice data1.

Interdisciplinary Teamwork to Develop a Strategy for a Systemic Solution

In late 2006, cognizant of the national legal representation crisis for unaccompanied children, Brad Smith, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the Microsoft Corporation discussed the problem with Lydia Tamez, Microsoft Associate General Counsel.  Ms. Tamez leads Microsoft’s Global Migration group, which is responsible for the immigration representation of the thousands of talented foreign professionals who are a critical part of the Microsoft team in the United States. Ms. Tamez had already played a role in launching and overseeing Volunteer Advocates for Immigrant Justice (VAIJ), a successful pro bono initiative now in its fifth year which has facilitated pro bono counsel, including many attorneys and paralegals from Microsoft, to represent detained immigrants – including 100% of detained immigrant children – in the Seattle area.  Mr. Smith asked Ms. Tamez to devise a business plan consistent with Microsoft principles that would ensure counsel and fair treatment for all unaccompanied children in the United States, including the over 2,000 children who are physically removed from the country each year to face uncertain fates in their home countries.

As Mr. Smith has noted, “This raised a new, broader question: How do we seek to solve this problem from a national perspective, and not just keep making a difference to individuals on a  case by case basis?” Microsoft established a brain trust of experts in unaccompanied children’s issues from the government, international organizations, non-government organizations, think tanks, economists, and statisticians, to examine the plight of unaccompanied children.  Based on those findings, they devised core principles and modeled programmatic solutions consistent with the best practices derived from VAIJ.  After extensive consultation and work with these experts, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) was born – and Angelina Jolie, a tenacious advocate for pro bono and systemic reforms for unaccompanied children graciously joined KIND as a member of its Board of Directors.

KIND and the Legal Community

At the KIND launch announcement, Brad Smith, who also serves as Co-Chair of the Advisory Board of Corporate Pro Bono, a joint initiative of the Association of Corporate Counsel and the Pro Bono Institute noted:

One of the things that we decided was that we wanted to build a new model for pro bono work, not a model that was written on a blank slate of paper, but rather a model that would seek to connect the dots and bring people together in new ways so that we could create new synergies and really grow the capacity of pro bono work.  We built a lot on what we had learned in Washington State, a lot on what the Pro Bono Institute has championed here in Washington [D.C.] for a number of years.  We decided that if this was going to succeed, it was going to need to be a partnership that would bring together corporate legal departments and companies, pro bono lawyers at law firms, non-governmental organizations that are already focused on doing this work, foundations who we hoped would provide financial support, and the voice of someone like Angelina Jolie, who could help raise visibility about these issues and what they really mean. [1]

In its first three years, KIND is targeting carefully selected markets where the need for pro bono representation of unaccompanied children can be met by a carefully calibrated mix of attorneys from law firms, corporations, and non-governmental organizations.  These initial target markets are the Northeast Corridor – spanning from Boston to Northern Virginia; Houston; Los Angeles; and Seattle.  KIND will strive to ensure that the children in these areas who would otherwise go unrepresented will instead have pro bono representation.  KIND will maintain a lean headquarters staff in Washington, D.C., and deploy Pro Bono Coordinators in each of the selected markets to screen, train, supervise, and mentor pro bono attorneys at law firms and corporations who will represent 2/3 of currently unrepresented unaccompanied children in each area.  Additionally, KIND will fund Fellows at several non-governmental organizations with expertise in working with unaccompanied children who will enhance KIND’s capacity to serve this greatly underserved population.  Thus far, KIND has secured an unprecedented number of pro bono pledges from law firms and corporations.

KIND offers law firms and corporations several exciting and innovative ways to assist unaccompanied children. The forms of assistance include: volunteering to screen children’s cases;  participating in “know-your-rights” presentations for detained children; conducting legal or country-of-origin research; serving as “attorney of the day” in Immigration Court for children who wish to return to their home county; donating time and talent to support the lobbying and advocacy efforts of KIND’s Policy Director;  to transactional representation of children in non-adversarial proceedings before the Department of Homeland Security, such as attainment of Special Immigrant Juvenile Status for abused, abandoned, neglected children.

Of course, KIND’s primary need is the time and talent of attorneys willing to represent children facing deportation in immigration court proceedings.  No previous immigration experience is required. KIND Pro Bono Coordinators will provide all necessary training, in tandem with KIND fellows at reputable non-governmental organizations.

KIND offers several tiers of membership at www.supportKIND.org, but welcomes any and all contributions – a pledge of pro bono hours, financial support, or just  a commitment to sign up as a supporter to be put on the list-serve.  Rather than requiring a pay-to-play model, KIND is egalitarian.  The organization seeks maximum participation, which will be recognized on its website and promotional materials.  KIND is grounded in the communities in which it operates and serves unaccompanied children.  KIND will promote the great pro bono work of law firms and corporations around the country in KIND’s communications, and will foster collaboration and co-counseling between firms and corporations.  Critical to KIND’s ultimate success is its institutionalization in the select communities and creative partnerships between law firms, corporations, NGOs and other stakeholders.  Pro bono attorneys therefore have a critical role to play to protect vulnerable unaccompanied children through KIND.

According to Brad Smith: “We’ve learned that a child who has a lawyer in effect is given a voice, a voice to make their case, a voice to speak on their behalf, a voice to speak to them and guide them through what is obviously an enormously important but challenging experience.”  Together, we can make a critical difference in the lives and futures of children such as Juan Pablo Lopez Cruz and open the door to America’s freedom for children who qualify for protection in the United States.

[1] Jaya Ramji-Nogales, Andrew I. Schoenholtz, and Philip G. Schrag, “Refugee Roulette: Disparities in Asylum Adjudication,” Stanford Law Review 60 (2007): 295-412