A Moral Obligation
Why Catherine Mohan helps immigrant children and families
Published in 2023 Connecticut Super Lawyers magazine
By Taylor Kuether on October 2, 2023
In 2016, Catherine Mohan felt compelled to become more active in pro bono—specifically, by representing children in immigration court. It might seem an odd choice for the chair of McCarter & English’s Products Liability, Mass Torts & Consumer Class Actions group; but for Mohan, the cause is personal.
“I am a first-generation American,” she says. “My father emigrated from Ireland. … America was great to my dad, he raised five great kids, and I had the most unbelievable opportunities.
“When the political climate changed, I felt a moral obligation,” she continues. “I sensed an urgency on the national level. It looked like we were now going to close our doors to the immigrants who made America, and I felt like I had to do my part.”
Mohan’s firm does a lot of work through the Kids in Need of Defense program, representing unaccompanied minors who make the grueling trip across the border on their own.
“It’s incredibly emotional and, in some cases, heartbreaking,” Mohan says. “The stories are all bad. The treacherous journey these people go through to come here makes you sometimes just sit back and say, ‘My god, we had no idea how good we had it here.’”
Her first client with KIND was a girl named Yenifer, whose case is still pending. “That 12-year-old child spent weeks on a bus, walking, and in the back of a truck from Guatemala, to finally get to America,” she says.
Via Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, Mohan is currently assisting an Afghan family that came to the U.S. in August 2021 during the Kabul evacuations. “This case, to me, is probably the most emotional,” says Mohan. “I’m protecting a 28-year-old woman and a 4-year-old little girl from having to return to a terrible place for women, like Afghanistan. This is what keeps me up at night.”
The family was allowed into the U.S. on humanitarian parole, Mohan says, and their asylum papers had to be filed within one year.
“I know that people in America are under this impression that it’s incredibly easy to file an application for asylum and that everybody who files one gets it,” Mohan says. “Well, that is absolutely not true. You need unbelievable paperwork from the country you’re coming from in order to seek asylum.”
Filing the paperwork was made even more complicated because the Afghan government was falling apart; some of the family’s documents only made it because the husband taped them to his body as they fled the country, Mohan says.
Mohan filed the papers—which, when stacked, measured more than 16 inches high—in August 2022, just under the one-year deadline. They were granted an interview that October, just six weeks later, and were told they’d be informed of their asylum status within 60 days.
“Now it is July,” Mohan adds. “We are almost going into a year of having our papers filed, and we have not heard.”
Yenifer, too, is still waiting. If she were granted a green card, she could go visit her parents and siblings in Guatemala, but until that happens, she can’t.
“My 12-year-old girl is now 18 years old, and she has yet to have her hearing,” Mohan says of her client. “After all these years of these kids doing everything right, to have to say, ‘Sorry, you have another year to wait.’ She broke down in tears.”
These long timelines make immigration different from other pro bono work, says Mohan. “We’re always in contact, because you are their lifeline to stay in America,” she says. “When you have these clients, it’s over years and years. You become so close with them.”
The work can be daunting, but Mohan says other attorneys shouldn’t be afraid of getting involved—in fact, she wishes she had started sooner.
“I was mad at myself that I had never done this before,” she says. “I felt like I owed it to my father—the obligation to take on these cases and to basically pay forward what someone had done for my dad.”
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