Volunteer Attorney of the Day Stands Up in Immigration Court For Those Who Need it Most

Carol Bisharat is the Immigrant Justice Attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

She regularly volunteers as an Attorney of the Day (AOD) for the expedited dockets at the San Francisco Immigration Court. These dockets are comprised of children and families who are fleeing violence in Central America and Mexico.

Unlike criminal cases, there is no right to counsel in deportation proceedings, despite the dire consequences and complex laws. Thus, the AOD program is critical to protecting the due process rights of indigent and vulnerable populations.

The AOD program is administered by BASF’s Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS), and staffed by volunteer attorneys experienced in Immigration law.

LRIS’s Avantika Shastri recently asked Bisharat a few questions about her AOD volunteering:

Why do you volunteer?

The need for help is immediate for the hundreds of women and children who appear each week for their hearings without legal representation. These people are bewildered by the process, which is conducted in a foreign language and in a context very different from their own life experiences.
In comparison, it takes very little effort for those of us with the skills to volunteer for a few hours. I try to calendar my volunteer time for dates when I am already in court.

The need is great, and while it is not a perfect solution to the problem of lack of counsel, it is hard to stand by and watch innocent people pay the price.

What is your role?

My role varies. Sometimes I advise them about their rights and provide legal agency referrals. Other times, I assist them in asking for more time from the court to find representation. In yet other cases, I may help them take an action in their case, like changing venue, filing an asylum application, or closing their case.

For these children and families, it makes a huge difference to have an attorney, even for a day, looking out for their interests and answering their questions. It also helps the court to understand important facts or issues that the child or woman may not know to disclose.

Can you provide any examples of cases?

Every day that I am in court, I see compelling examples of why there should always be an Attorney of the Day available.

Recently, I met a young mother from Mexico. She came to the U.S. to flee violence with her five-year old daughter, who had severe birth defects. Her daughter weighed 20 pounds and could not sit up or stand. With my assistance, we were able to persuade the government to exercise its prosecutorial discretion in her favor and close her deportation case.

Visit www.sfbar.org/sfildc for more information about the AOD program. We welcome more volunteers.