UW Law partners with Microsoft, Adelante Pro Bono Project to fight humanitarian crisis
In response to one of the worst humanitarian crises in U.S. history, the UW School of Law is partnering with the Adelante Pro Bono Project and Microsoft to help vulnerable migrants who have been denied fair access to asylum.
The organizations’ multitiered efforts comprise direct representation of clients forced to remain in Mexico pursuant to recent immigration policies implemented at the southern border; advocacy efforts for systemic immigration reform; and an intensive training initiative that builds on Microsoft’s robust pro bono program.
The rapid response project is spearheaded by Haiyun Damon-Feng, William H. Gates Public Service Pro Bono Program assistant director and one of the founders of the Adelante Pro Bono Project. She brought in a team of UW Law 2L students who are each passionate about immigration law to help with the partnership’s various components.
“The students have poured their hearts — and a lot of hours — into this project, and we have been able to achieve incredible outcomes for our clients as a result.”
“We started the Adelante Pro Bono Project at a time when there was very little hope for asylum seekers trapped outside our borders, but we had to do something,” Damon-Feng says. “We designed a program that would allow us to work remotely with our clients in Mexico by leveraging technology and our increased ability to work remotely during the pandemic.
“At the end of the day, we are doing this because we care deeply about the work, and these students are just so incredibly committed. The students have poured their hearts — and a lot of hours — into this project, and we have been able to achieve incredible outcomes for our clients as a result.”
WORKING WITH FAMILIES
In 2019, the Trump administration implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) — commonly referred to as the “Remain in Mexico” policy — that require certain migrants arriving in the United States via the U.S.-Mexico border to remain in Mexico while litigating their immigration claims.
While the Biden administration has ordered an end to placing people in MPP, over 30,000 people once enrolled are still without relief.
Also ongoing is the Title 42 policy under which asylum seekers have been summarily expelled from the U.S., resulting in children being separated from their families and a near total inability for recently arrived migrants to seek protection in the United States.
Migrants, and particularly migrants traveling with children, have been targeted for kidnapping, extortion, sexual assault, torture and murder. In addition to the constant threats of violence they face every day, many are also dealing with significant physical and mental health issues.
The Adelante Pro Bono Project was founded to assist these particularly vulnerable individuals. Since February 2021, Adelante has successfully helped more than 15 families secure release from these dangerous conditions.
Isabel Skilton, 2L, worked with Damon-Feng on a case that made headlines. Because of their work, their clients — a Honduran man and his son who were kidnapped, tortured, and held for ransom in Mexico — were admitted into the U.S.
“I've worked on a few immigration cases, and I've never been able to really give good news because it just takes so long to get an outcome,” Skilton says. “This is the first time I've been in the position to do that. The unfortunate part is the fact that we were able to have such good news is because [our client] was put in such a bad position in the first place.”
Through her experience working on a separate case, Cassandra Baker, 2L, says being a part of the collective efforts of so many different medical and legal professionals was inspiring.
“I know we talk about our legal system as an adversarial system — and it can be — but I think collaboration is also a big part of it,” Baker says. “When a lot of immigration lawyers and other advocates combine their efforts, you can actually get a good result in a tough case, which is really encouraging given how many negative things have happened in the immigration world in the last several years.”
DAY ONE INITIATIVE
Expanding on extensive pro bono work already underway, Microsoft partnered with UW Law and Adelante to develop and implement the Day One Initiative.
Immigration has been a core focus of Microsoft’s pro bono program since its inception; still, this effort is unprecedented:
Over the course of a work week, volunteer attorneys from the company meet with previously screened families who have a child with a serious medical condition. Two-to-three volunteers work with the families to prepare a humanitarian parole application, and they are given the full week off to engage in this virtual frontline work.
The Day One Initiative kicked off in February with an immersive training on dealing with the scope of the situation at the border.
“You get to say to your boss, ‘I’m going to go do this for a week,’ and your team comes together to support you. It’s really unique.”
“You see among the volunteers a mix of shock about the extent of the crisis, but also deep gratitude to be able to get involved,” says Barbara Leen, a U.S. immigration attorney at Microsoft. “You get to say to your boss, ‘I’m going to go do this for a week,’ and your team comes together to support you. It’s really unique."
Michelle Browne, 2L, helped lead the training’s development, working closely with leaders at the company to help get the pieces in place for the program to take off. A mother of two, Browne says that seeing what is happening to families at the border has been heart-breaking, making the response from the Microsoft team so much more powerful.
“This is really unprecedented because there simply is no system in place to respond to this kind of humanitarian crisis,” Browne says. “For the Day One Initiative, we were able to prepare the materials and conduct the training, and the response has just been incredible. We've been engaging in this work, but now the Microsoft attorneys are taking on more clients than even we have.”
“The opportunity to get involved in something like this that is immediate, something that that is having such a significant impact, is exactly what I was looking for in terms of my legal education.”
As of this writing, all six cases the Microsoft attorneys worked on through the Day One Initiative have been granted relief.
“We’ve been very fortunate to partner with the University of Washington School of Law and the Adelante Pro Bono Project on this,” says Microsoft Pro Bono Director Beth Henderson. “It’s been such a great collaborative effort, and it’s been so wonderful to see the impact the Day One Initiative is having. I’m so proud of what the initiative has accomplished in such a short period of time.”
ADVOCATING FOR REFORM
The partnership’s third major component takes shape in the form of broader advocacy efforts for systemic immigration reform.
Damon-Feng, Baker, Browne and Skilton conducted extensive research on conditions at the border alongside the sociopolitical realities shaping them.
Their resulting report, “Locked in Limbo: The Urgent Need to Fully Dismantle ‘Remain in Mexico’ and Rapidly Process Vulnerable People into the United States,” illustrates the full extent of the suffering tens of thousands of migrants are enduring every day.
Interspersed with personal stories, the report offers a scathing indictment of the Trump-era policies that created the crisis, and it proposes a number of immediate actions and policy changes for the Biden administration.
“The Biden Administration should make use of every available tool, including the expanded use of humanitarian parole, to release vulnerable people from MPP more rapidly and to wind down and terminate MPP as quickly as possible,” the authors write, ultimately concluding, “The immediate and prompt release of people from MPP is necessary to restore humanity, dignity, and due process to our immigration and asylum system.”
While no amount of work can hope to remedy a crisis of this scale, being able to make a life-changing difference for families where possible is one of the most meaningful experiences law students can have, Browne says.
“I wanted to go to a law school that valued experiential learning and had resources devoted to public interest work, which is one of the reasons I chose UW Law,” Browne says. “The opportunity to get involved in something like this that is immediate, something that that is having such a significant impact, is exactly what I was looking for in terms of my legal education.”