How Karla Vehrs helps the most vulnerable of immigrants
Published in 2018 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine on July 5, 2018
In 2004, Karla Vehrs was in the first months of an internship with the refugee and immigrant program at the Minnesota-based Advocates for Human Rights when she was introduced to a family from Africa whose harrowing tale still haunts her—and which inspired the Appleton, Wisconsin native to represent immigrants on a pro bono basis for the last 12 years.
“I spent many hours talking with one of the family members about the many horrific things that she had never shared with anyone,” says Vehrs. “We both shed a lot of tears, talking through it all. It was frankly the stuff out of nightmares. … In hindsight, I actually realized that I was experiencing one of the aspects of [attorney] training: secondary or vicarious trauma.
“Thankfully, the family received asylum and was not forced to return to those conditions.”
Now a partner at Ballard Spahr, Vehrs helps businesses with litigation matters. She also serves as pro bono counsel to immigrants who have been victims of crimes, human rights abuses, and human trafficking. She works to get them U visas (issued to victims of serious crime) and T visas (for victims of human trafficking).
Sometimes the challenges start with simply trying to get in touch with the right person. Or any person.
“There’s an office that’s responsible for issuing the T visas and the U visas,” she says, “but good luck if you ever want to get a real human being on the phone. It’s just never going to happen. You have to deal with a much more impersonal system—to the nth degree—when you’re talking immigration.
“It’s frustrating for me—and I’ve gone through this process quite a few times now. Every time I take on a new case I find it to be at least somewhat bewildering all over again. So I cannot even fathom what it’s like to try to go through this process and advocate for yourself when you don’t have that experience and training.”
Many of her cases involve labor trafficking.
“These are hard cases for authorities to find because the domestic laborer cases are one-offs, they’re individual people,” she says. “They’re often kept in the house, so people may not see them coming or going much.”
Vehrs’ clients have ranged from household laborers to agricultural workers. She’s currently representing a farm laborer in a two-year-long case connected to the Svihel Vegetable Farm near St. Cloud. “The man who was running that operation had been trafficking men from the Dominican Republic and making them work under unbelievable circumstances for several years, for way less pay than they were entitled to under the law.
“One of the great things about this community is that there are so many people who are engaged in this type of work here, and making sure people have representation. So when that story hit, there were legal services providers on the ground, right away, ready to make sure that these people all got connected with the people they needed to support them.”
The case is pending for Vehrs’ client. She helped him apply to remain in the U.S. legally—and bring his eligible family members to live with him. “We are still awaiting a decision from immigration on that application,” she says.
The work gives Vehrs a valuable perspective. “This isn’t the ordinary work that we do,” she says. “The experiences that we get, and the opportunities to learn about them, and learn from them and help them, are life-changing.”
How to Get Involved
Starting points for those interested in pro bono immigration work
“If you’re interested in taking on a case in this arena,” Vehrs says, “it’s really just a matter of picking up the phone. Between the Advocates for Human Rights and Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, there is no shortage of opportunity to get involved—and need—for pro bono work.”