President Trump’s first travel ban was announced a year ago and Michael Kerr wanted to do something about it.
Along with Elizabeth Mann and his other colleagues at global law firm Mayer Brown, that “something” turned out to be successfully representing two Hondurans who fled violence in their homeland to seek refuge here.
Kerr, who called himself a political independent, watched TV footage of the ban-inspired protests at New York’s JFK airport that Saturday night in late Jan. 2017. He was “annoyed with how everything was going,” he told Bloomberg Law.
Then a partner and now senior counsel at the firm, Kerr saw other lawyers go to airports to offer legal assistance. It was then he decided that he’d do his “small part” to help if he could.
Mann, a partner at the firm—and a Republican—told Bloomberg Law she was inspired by a 60 Minutes story about an undocumented family living in the basement of a church in Houston.
A couple days after she watched the segment, national pro bono firm Public Counsel reached out to Mayer Brown to see if it would take on two immigration cases.
The lawyers went on to secure legal victories for their clients. They were forced to learn the ins-and-outs of immigration law—and maybe a bit about themselves, too—along the way.
First Time in Jail
The clients, whom the lawyers didn’t want to name for privacy reasons, both came to the U.S. this past spring.
Kerr’s client was 20. Mann’s was 19. They were both held at the Orange County, Calif., jail.
None of the lawyers had visited a jail before, they said, save for Miller’s work during a law school internship for a public defender’s office.
“Let’s just say that we don’t always meet the Mayer Brown clients in the county jail,” Mann said.
Kerr wasn’t used to checking his electronics at the door of a client meeting, he added.
The lawyers knew little, if anything, about immigration law or the asylum process.
Kerr said he had some reservation about jumping into an area of law he didn’t know much about, given what was at stake.
The young men had fled gang violence in Honduras, which had claimed the lives of close relatives from both of their families, Kerr said.
But both attorneys said working with Public Counsel helped ease the transition to a new area of the law. The group’s sample briefs, for example, were immensely helpful, Kerr said.
The lawyers also learned more about the root cause of at least one aspect of our country’s complex immigration situation.
Kerr learned from a gang expert that, in the 1990s, the U.S. deported “hardened gang members” to Central America from southern California en masse.
The deportees basically took gangs that had been created in California and recreated them in their countries of origin with the same name, Kerr said.
So there’s a “symbiotic relationship” between U.S. policy and the growth of these gangs in Central America, he said.
After their hearing this past fall, the judge granted Kerr’s client asylum.
It was “an extremely emotional moment in the courtroom,” he said.
“Tears in peoples’ eyes,” he said.
Nothing made Mann happier, she said, than helping her client reunite with his family.
He used to be in danger but now he’s free, she said.
All the lawyers involved reflect fondly on the experience.
“It’s certainly opened my eyes,” Mann replied, when asked if the pro bono representation has changed the way she looks at anything else, politically. “It’s so human and so real.”
“You say to yourself, I have a son who’s 20,” she said.
“There but by the grace of God.”