2011 Founders Fellowship
Georgetown University Law Center
Margot Dankner, Tahirih Justice Center
Read Margot’s personal essay about her work protecting immigrant women and girls seeking justice in the United States.
Women around the world still face incredible barriers to equality. The United Nations Development Fund for Women reports that one out of every three women worldwide has been coerced into sex, beaten, or otherwise abused in her lifetime, with rates of domestic violence reaching 70% in some countries. This statistic is staggering, and the Tahirih Justice Center faces this challenge head on by representing women and girls seeking refuge in the United States in immigration and family law proceedings, advocating for policies and laws that protect women from falling victim to forced marriage and other forms of gender-based abuse, and reaching out to community partners to ensure that women and girls receive the services and legal representation they are entitled to. With the generous support of the Women’s Bar Association Foundation Founders Fellowship, I was able to assist Tahirih in this mission as an intern in their immigration law department.
The legal services department of Tahirih’s Virginia office is comprised of six dedicated and passionate attorneys who approach their work with constant compassion and creativity. Over the course of the summer, I observed as they took on novel areas of law, navigated complex federal, state, local processes in order to secure needed relief for clients, and zealously advocated for clients in court. Regardless of how busy they were, they were always willing to share their knowledge and serve as sources of support for interns and for one another with complicated legal problems and sometimes-demanding client relationships. This incredible dedication to achieving justice for clients and supportive environment provided an ideal setting in which to build and hone my skills as an advocate for women and girl survivors of gender-based abuse and discrimination seeking relief to remain in the United States.
Under the close mentorship of immigration staff attorney Morgan Weibel, I was provided with the opportunity to join this rich milieu with projects that ranged from filing documents with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), to screening potential service seekers, to drafting legal arguments on complex areas of the law. In order to assist attorneys in securing asylum or withholding of removal for women and girls who had suffered from domestic violence, rape, and other gender-related persecution, I translated documents from Spanish to English, researched evolving areas of the law, drafted an emergency stay of removal, and helped moot clients for court. I worked with attorneys to aid survivors of human trafficking and other crimes here in the U.S. in applying for U and T visas by conducting client intakes, coordinating with law enforcement to obtain certifying documents, and researching country conditions. And in support of VAWA Battered Spouse waivers, I submitted Freedom of Information Act requests and conducted research on specific areas of law in order to help clients continue to pursue the legal status to which they are entitled under Federal law without the assistance of their abusive U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident husbands.
This work was both fascinating and fulfilling. The ability to have a significant amount of responsibility while also knowing that Morgan and the other attorneys were available for support and guidance, gave me confidence as I embarked on tasks, some new and some familiar, in advocating for clients. While many of the responsibilities and client interactions that I had over the course of the summer stayed with me, it was my work with C* that was the most rewarding and helped me develop the most as an advocate.
C’s case had been complicated. After sustaining years of abuse in Latin America, she was brutally attacked by her ex-partner while they were both living in the United States. C initially cooperated with police, but lost touch with the authorities when she fled the area in an attempt to distance herself from the event. Years later, C was placed in deportation proceedings, and her attorney attempted to get the police department to sign a certification stating that she had cooperated and was thus eligible for a U visa. The police department refused due to the fact that the case had been permanently sealed, which prevented them from verifying the extent of her cooperation.
By the time I began working on C’s case, other attorneys and interns had already tried to work with the police department, but were unable to find anyone willing to proceed with a rarely used provision in the state’s penal code that permitted a law enforcement agency to unseal a case “in the interest of justice.” Jumping in to what seemed like a cold trail, I hoped that there were options left unturned. I conducted additional research on the law and called and emailed the local bar association, immigration lawyers, the police department, and the local district attorney’s office, trying to find a way to unseal the case and move forward with a certification.
There were a number of setbacks. An immigration attorney who had been touted as being familiar with this situation was unaware of how to proceed. A friendly Assistant District Attorney (ADA) at first went forward with a motion to unseal before discovering that her office did not have the authority to do so. Finally, after weeks of additional phone calls and emails, I was able to get in touch with the detective who had been involved in C’s case, connect him with the ADA who had pledged to help, and together they were able to unseal the records and initiate the certification process. C ultimately received the certification, and her U visa petition remains pending before USCIS. If her U visa is approved, C will not only be able to remain in the safety of the U.S., but she will also be able to extend that protection to her minor daughter who remains in danger in Latin America. In that sense, the U certification was the key to unlocking safety for C and her family.
Working with clients like C showed me the dire need for persistent advocates familiar with the law to help immigrant women and girls fleeing violence and abuse obtain the legal relief they are entitled to. While C, and many others like her, are eligible for various forms of immigration relief, it is often impossible to obtain that relief without an advocate who knows the system and can work within it to reach a favorable outcome. To be able to fill that role for C was hugely satisfying for me and helped confirm my desire to perform this kind of work when I finish law school next year. I am grateful to the Women’s Bar Association Foundation for the opportunity to have worked with the Tahirih Justice Center in helping clients like C remain in the U.S., safe from their abusers, so that they can recover and create new futures for themselves and their families.