Vecina Founder On Helping Asylum-Seekers Remotely

By RJ Vogt | April 12, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT

When Lindsay Gray started practicing immigration law in 2013, she was struck by how rewarding it felt to help "hardworking, determined folks."


But after the Trump administration began rapidly changing federal policies in 2017, the work became less enjoyable — and representation rates, especially for asylum-seekers, began to plummet.

Lindsay Gray founded the nonprofit Vecina last year to train and mobilize volunteer lawyers. 

As an adjunct professor of immigration law for Washington University in St. Louis who operated her own private practice, Gray started brainstorming ways to increase access to justice. In August, she incorporated Vecina, a nonprofit that seeks to mentor, train and mobilize volunteer attorneys.

"Representation can make a difference in whether they live or die," Gray told Law360.

A key aspect of her idea was that mentoring and case-pairing could be done remotely, a concept that has taken on new relevance as governments have urged social distancing measures to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Attorneys interested in tackling remote pro bono work can contact Vecina to be paired with an asylum-seeker forced to remain in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP. The organization provides mentoring and immigration law training to its volunteers, who in turn offer vital representation to migrants from wherever they're based.

Here, Law360 spoke with Gray about her organization and the key things to keep in mind when representing an asylum-seeker remotely.

What inspired you to create Vecina?

Over the last few years, there's been some compassion fatigue and burnout in the private immigration bar. They can only do so much, and even if everyone gave 100% of what they could, it would not be enough to meet the need.

Those ever-shifting policies have helped spur a whole groundswell of nonimmigration attorneys who want to help but don't know where to start — that's what led to the need for something like Vecina.

I kept hearing that legal services organizations on the border didn't have the capacity to answer all the questions from pro bono counsel. It's a heavy lift to mentor dozens of attorneys for full representation. We found that was a gap that needed to be filled.

How does the organization coach attorneys to represent asylum-seekers?

All of our mentors are hand-picked, nationally recognized asylum law experts.

For example, one of our mentors was awarded the Edith B. Lowenstein Award for Excellence by the American Immigration Lawyers Association; another is the former managing attorney at Human Rights First in Washington, D.C.; and one of our other mentors actually wrote the practice advisory on MPP that's utilized by attorneys throughout the country.

To me, the mentors are really what makes Vecina amazing. These ladies are really fantastic. They can help train a law firm that is having a group of lawyers take on cases, or new attorneys at immigration nonprofits that may not necessarily have the staffing to train new hires. When an individual attorney takes a case, we pair them with a mentor and they set up an introductory strategy call. There's also online video training that we ask people to watch.

As the organization grows and we get more attorneys to take cases, we'll need more mentors: Looking at the next 12 months, our biggest goal is growing our mentor group and boosting our online training and online courses.

What should a pro bono attorney keep in mind when representing asylum-seekers remotely?

As someone who has been focused on client-centered representation, doing primarily remote representation is very challenging — especially when working with someone who is a victim of trauma.

One big thing to remember is: If you call your client, always ask if it's a good time to talk or if they need to call you back. They need to be in a safe space, especially because many of these folks are living in camps that aren't very private.

Also be aware that it could be weeks or months for them to really open to you. It's really important to be patient and also to understand that you're unlikely to get the full story the first time you communicate.

What effect has COVID-19 had on migrants?

One is the potential health and safety danger that this has brought. Many people subject to Migrant Protection Protocols, or the "Remain in Mexico" policy, are living along the border in what are essentially refugee camps; they're living in tents, very close together, sharing many resources. If there's an outbreak in one of the camps, it will affect very many people.

This, in turn, has made access to counsel even more of an issue. It was already hard to find attorneys willing to travel for cases. Now, given the obviously incredible challenges posed by traveling — and, in many places, the ban on traveling — it's even more difficult to find counsel.

Another aspect of coronavirus is that it has made these migrants even more invisible. They weren't getting much press in the first place compared to family separation back in 2018 ... but now the rise of the virus of course demands attention. And that limits attention on the asylum-seekers.

How has the asylum process changed due to COVID-19?

On a practical level, because of COVID-19, a lot of the MPP cases are postponed at least through May 1. MPP cases tend to have a fast turnaround, so in some ways, the postponement can be a positive thing: An attorney can spend a little bit more time getting up to speed and feeling comfortable with their case, getting documents and reviewing training materials.

I still think people should expect that, if they take on a case, they will need to travel to either the tent court or the actual immigration court — if there is one and it isn't being done via video — for the final hearing. Obviously in an ideal world, we would be with our clients physically at each milestone of their case. But given the circumstances, courts have continued to be open to using either video or telephonic hearings when possible.

All Access is a series of discussions with leaders in the access to justice field. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.


--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

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