August 26, 2016
Who are the people who have shaped your life? I can think of three people who influenced me towards a passion for human rights work.
I met the first with a seemingly random phone call. I didn’t set out to become a human rights lawyer. I graduated law school in 1981. I hung a shingle and started trying cases. I was representing a client in a court appointed burglary case, with a defendant from El Salvador. I got a call from Brad Ginter, a Mennonite missionary. Brad and his wife were working with Central Americans here. He called to make sure I was doing my job. He asked if I knew about the civil wars in Central America and embarrassed, I said, ‘not really.’ He commenced to tell me about the thousands of Central Americans fleeing civil war from El Salvador and Guatemala -fleeing in hoped of finding refuge in the United States. I then made a single offhand comment that changed my life. I said, ‘If you ever need help, give me a call.’ And he did! Initially I agreed to help obtain guardianship for kids to enroll in school. Later, I took a training in asylum law. My first asylum case was a Guatemalan woman, Martha, whose husband was a labor leader assassinated by a death squad as they took their kids to school. I helped her get asylum, after that I was hooked. Brad worked with a local nonprofit, Proyecto Adelante, and my policy was that once I finished an asylum case, I’d ask for another one. This led me to provide pro bono legal representation for political and religious asylum applicants from twenty different countries. Over the next twenty years. I found my calling.
The second was one of my pro bono clients. A client from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) changed my view of why I did this work. My client had been a pro-democracy activist during the tyrannical reign of Sese Mobutu. This resulted in his arrest. He managed to escape and make his way to the United States. He was lucky to be alive. His wife and children were in hiding in Brazzaville. I assisted this young man to obtain political asylum here. Months later, he showed up unannounced at my office with his wife and children. They were no longer in hiding. Instead, they were making a new life in the United States. He introduced me to them and said, “I wanted to thank you in person.” After he thanked me, I told him rather casually that it was my pleasure. He looked at me, paused, and said, “No, I know what you did for me, you gave me my life.” Then it hit me. It was I who was getting the most out of this relationship. Most people don’t have a career where they get to hear that. Most lawyers never hear something like that. I knew then, at that very moment, that this was the most enriching work I could possibly do. I learned that it was a privilege to represent clients like him.
Betsy, the trailblazer
The third was one of the founders of Human Rights Initiative, Betsy Healy. I met Betsy when she was a young associate attorney at a downtown Dallas law firm. Unlike me, she DID go to law school to do human rights work. I was her mentor lawyer for her first asylum client, who was from the Congo. We spent hours on the phone talking through the strategy of how to obtain asylum for her client as well as just encouraging her in her desire to do pro bono work. She won that case! She went on to leave her job (and consequentially, her private law firm paycheck) to found Human Rights Initiative. Her vision, along with co-founder, Serena Connelly, was to do work of compassion with excellence. She established the policy of having very high standards for our lawyers, our volunteer lawyers, and staff. And because of her I was able to do pro bono legal work for the next twelve years, before becoming Executive Director here.
We all stand on the shoulders of others, I know I do. It inspires me to make time for others as they reach out. Who knows how that will end? I am certain that Brad Ginter had no idea the number of lives he would touch because of the inspiration he gave me. And I intend to pass that on.