ATJ Pro Bono Champion
The ATJ Pro Bono Champion is a quarterly feature highlighting the work of an attorney chosen by the Texas Access to Justice Commission. To learn more about pro bono work in Texas or to get involved, go to probonotexas.org.
Interview by Eric Quitugua
Photo by Michael Zamarripa
Harlingen-based immigration law attorney Jodi Goodwin describes herself as a “guerrilla lawyer,” helping asylum-seekers navigate the U.S. legal system through her own practice as well as her pro bono projects Project Corazon: Matamoros and the Project Dignity Legal Team.
What drew you to immigration law?
I became interested in immigration law while in college at the University of Texas in Austin. I worked at a semi-conductor fabrication plant with a large number of immigrants. It was a great job and allowed me to study and work full-time with a great group of people. With language skills (I speak Spanish) and a degree in government, I was drawn to volunteer in refugee communities helping with translations for asylum cases. My strong skills were my ability to empathize and help those trying to navigate a legal system and me being bilingual. From there, I decided the best use of my skill set was to head to law school to study immigration law.
Having read quite a few articles following you, I saw the phrase “guerrilla lawyer.” How do you define a guerrilla lawyer?
“Guerrilla lawyer” is actually a term that was coined by one of my mentors, Brian Bates. When he first wrote about guerrilla lawyering, it meant taking positions in litigation that were against the grain, cutting edge, or simply out of the box. In other words, taking risks, legally. Guerrilla lawyering has meant lots of things to me, but most importantly it has meant not being afraid to step into craziness during times of rapid-response lawyering in crises. It has also meant not giving up on people nor legal strategies, even if it takes years to get results.
Can you tell me about Project Corazon: Matamoros and the Project Dignity Legal Team? What’s the impetus for those programs?
Corazon: Matamoros is a project of Lawyers for Good Government. Project Dignity Legal Team is a project of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and the Dignity Village collaborative. Both projects came out of a crisis situation in Matamoros, Mexico, after the Trump administration implemented the metering protocols and the Remain in Mexico program for asylum seekers. With the development of a refugee camp at the border, the need for legal services to extend to Mexico was overwhelming, so both projects were created to serve those needs. Project Corazon focused on screening, intake, and assistance with filling out asylum applications, while Project Dignity focused on direct representation in courts and appeals.
To say you face quite a few roadblocks to your pro bono work is an understatement. How do you deal?
Indeed, “roadblocks” is an understatement when it comes to immigration law. Dealing with arbitrariness of officers and judges, daily policy changes, weekly caselaw changes, and monthly regulatory and statutory changes, makes immigration law more complicated than the tax code and certainly more frustrating. There are a number of ways to deal with the labyrinth, but most importantly for me is to recognize its existence. I truly have to engage in a number of coping skills on a daily basis to deal with the craziness. I care for my family, cook, dance, meditate, pray, laugh, work outside, care for my animals, needlepoint, write … well, about 100 other things to give my mind a rest from the insanity of working in immigration law.
How has the coronavirus pandemic forced you to adjust?
Funny, but the pandemic has forced me to slow down. I had been on a roller coaster of crisis management pro bono work for the past three years. Working over 800 hours pro bono managing incredibly mentally draining trauma takes a toll on any person. I needed a break. I needed to stop. As much as people in the Migrant Protection Protocols program needed a lawyer, this guerrilla lawyer needed to take stock of her mental and physical health. While I have continued to work every day since the courts closed in mid-March, the lack of hearings has given me a chance to heal from the past three years of trauma.
How are your clients?
The mood of my clients can best be described as desperate. Complete desperation and disbelief. The concept or image that most had of being able to be protected by the U.S. has been tarnished. It is as if they simply cannot believe what is happening to them. At the same time, there is a faith in something positive coming out of all of the ugliness. On those days when I think to myself that there is simply nothing else I can do … I get a few messages from those stuck in Matamoros and I am reminded that faith does move mountains.
How are you able to handle both non-pro bono and pro bono cases?
Handling so much pro bono work is always a delicate balance. Watching the bottom line in the office is any law firm owner’s constant worry. I have always kept some internal guidelines to the type of pro bono cases I will take and the type of cases that will always be for hire. It is also helpful that my small team (I have six employees) is always on board to assist in both pro bono and for hire matters. Lastly, sometimes I simply have to put a “stop” on accepting any pro bono cases so I can focus on the business of the law firm. I find that doing things in this matter allows me to respond quickly to crisis situations that require immediate action.
What do your clients and others in their situation need most and how can lawyers step up and help?
If you ask those in the refugee camp in Mexico what they need most, the number one item on their list is lawyers! No kidding. They need basic supplies like food, clothing, shelter, and medicine, but when they speak themselves about their needs, the first thing they say is legal help. TBJ