Shouldering the Load
For Anitha Kumpati, pro bono immigration work is spiritual satisfaction
Published in 2022 Texas Rising Stars magazine on March 22, 2022
Just a few months after she passed the Texas Bar in 2017, Anitha Kumpati took on a pro bono case: A Rwandan teacher, determined to educate his students about the country’s human rights atrocities, was arrested. Luckily, friends in the U.S. helped him get a visitor visa, and he fled. Shortly after meeting him through American Gateways—a Central Texas nonprofit that pairs willing attorneys with immigrants and refugees who have survived political persecution, torture and human trafficking—Kumpati filed for asylum on his behalf.
Like many of the pro bono cases she handles as part of her practice in Austin, the results are bittersweet. “Sadly, our system is a little slow,” she says. “The case is still pending, but he got his employment permit to work in the United States. So, he’s waiting on his [asylum] interview still.”
Such delays haven’t deterred Kumpati from taking on more cases through American Gateways and the Austin-based Texas Opportunity & Justice Incubator—a program for low-income Texans. Kumpati, who represents mostly pro bono clients from Central America, often meets them for the first time in the detention centers where they are awaiting deportation or are being held for violating immigration laws.
Married to a naturalized American citizen who came here as a student 30 years ago, Kumpati knows firsthand the personal challenges immigrants face. When she tried to join her husband in the U.S. in 2004, “even though our marriage was legitimate, we had a hard time proving it to the consulate in India,” she says. “My husband petitioned the USCIS to bring me as his spouse, but it didn’t get approved in normal processing time. My newborn daughter and I could not unite with my husband in the U.S. as a family until I received my permanent residency.”
Conditions for immigrants coming into the U.S. have dramatically worsened since then, especially for the undocumented, Kumpati points out. Some have had difficulty getting green cards; other longtime residents were caught off guard by the elimination of the Temporary Protected Status provision in 2019 and deported. “These are United States children, so they don’t take them away, but the parents are taken away,” Kumpati says. “And at the same time, these women from Central America, especially, escaped persecution. … When we go to detention centers, we hear their stories. It is hard not to cry.”
As emotionally difficult and time-consuming as the cases can be, Kumpati says there is a practical aspect to doing pro bono work as a young lawyer. “The best way to start a practice is to start doing pro bono work,” she says. “Not only are you helping clients, but there is a lot of work in areas that you were never exposed to when you were in law school.”
Most importantly for her, these cases bring a “spiritual satisfaction. It is not, economically, very advantageous, but people need it,” she says. “My kids see what I do, and they learn what they see. I want them to be useful in this society. It’s not about living our lives comfortably, but living for each other. … I know the value of uniting families together. Every time they get some benefit, I feel like I won.”
In Pursuit of Pro Bono
Anitha Kumpati offers three tips for getting started:
- Understand the importance of volunteering—not just to your pro bono clients, but to your firm. “The first thing lawyers need is a good reputation, and doing this pro bono work is not only a social service but it is really rewarding because you are developing good will at your firm.”
- Team up with a nonprofit that has a good insurance policy. “Sometimes global clients can come back and sue us. Especially in criminal law, I’ve seen some attorneys that start this pro bono work and, even with the small cases, they can easily get into trouble.”
- Cover your bases. “Be cautious in every step, because you don’t know when the client is going to come back with dissatisfaction. So, in everything you do, make sure your steps are right and don’t take anything lightly.”