Turning Lives Around
Jeff Barnes fights for refugees and troubled teens
Published in 2017 Texas Rising Stars magazine
on March 8, 2017
Updated on March 9, 2017
Jeff Barnes is used to representing employers in disputes with lots of money at stake. But in the pro bono cases he’s handled for a decade—helping asylum-seekers as well as an agency that serves teens in crisis—his clients have much more to lose.
Early in his career at Houston-based Baker Botts, he made contact with YMCA International, which helps people seeking refuge in the U.S.
“The asylum cases were extraordinarily rewarding,” he says. “Usually, lawsuits are about money, and these were about saving people’s lives.”
In one case, he represented a pro marathoner from Ethiopia who was invited to run the Houston marathon. Rather than go back home, the man, a member of Ethiopia’s persecuted Oromo people, requested asylum.
“He wasn’t terribly involved in politics, but in Ethiopia, marathon runners are rock stars,” Barnes says. “As a high-profile Oromo, he was targeted by police and randomly imprisoned for a week at a time.”
Barnes won the man’s case, and it didn’t hurt that one of the presiding immigration officers was an amateur marathoner himself. In one bridge-building moment, he says, the officer brought a medal he’d earned in a race to show to Barnes’ client. “It helped that he understood that marathon-running in Ethiopia is a very big deal,” he says.
Another client, from Darfur, worked as a domestic servant for a wealthy Egyptian businessman visiting Houston. “He didn’t have the normal working rights that most workers in America have,” Barnes says. “He couldn’t leave the house. Not having the freedom to leave the workplace to have a meal or meet a friend for coffee—that’s borderline imprisonment.”
The man managed to escape and sought help from YMCA International, which helped him get temporary authorization to work. In the meantime, Barnes won asylum for the man, arguing that he’d be in danger if sent back to his native, war-scarred Sudan.
“In both cases,” Barnes says, “I had a client in severe crisis who reasonably believed that, if forced to go back to his own country, he would be killed or imprisoned or subject to violence—all because he belonged to a particular ethnic group, or had particular political views.”
Over the last decade, Barnes has also provided pro bono counsel and support to Houston’s Center for Success and Independence, a treatment center for teens facing addiction and mental health issues.
At Jackson Lewis, Barnes led workplace Christmas drives for the center, several times making his modestly sized firm the program’s most generous contributor.
“A lot of the kids are wards of the state and don’t have parents involved in their lives,” he says. “We make lists of items they want and find people willing to purchase them so they can have a moment of joy and excitement.”
Barnes himself has had the pleasure of dropping off giant truckloads of gifts—and of seeing kids transform from reluctant to grateful center residents. Some have gone on to become outspoken advocates for the center.
“We’ve had the opportunity to turn lives around,” he says. “Without that support, they may have been back on the streets.”
In 2013, when Barnes and colleague Teresa Valderrama were with Jackson Lewis, they conceived the idea for an employment law symposium for nonprofits in association with The United Way of Greater Houston. The annual half-day event draws between 50 and 100 attendees and teaches nonprofit leaders and HR directors about legal issues that nonprofits often face, offering information about best practices.
“It’s a good way to give back to the community in a way that we can use our own expertise,” Barnes says, adding that the material is especially useful for smaller organizations. “They don’t usually have a dedicated human-resources person, and if they do, they’re wearing a lot of hats; they’re not specialists like in bigger businesses. So it really gives them some information to go back and make fixes with.”
Last year, Barnes and Valderrama joined Fisher Phillips, where they recruit colleagues to present at the events, seeing it as a team-building experience.
Barnes says, “It’s great to get everyone in the office involved in doing something we think is very valuable.”
How to Help—In Houston
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston
The charity’s St. Frances Cabrini Center for Immigration Legal Assistance seeks pro bono attorneys for cases including asylum, abandoned/abused immigrant juveniles, domestic-violence survivors, and victims of crimes including human trafficking.
Wafa Abdin: (713) 526-4611
YMCA needs pro bono attorneys to represent asylum-seekers, as well as victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. Mentoring is available from staff attorneys. Programs include Walk-in Wednesdays, during which people can discuss their immigration issues.
Human Rights First—Houston Office
The organization needs pro bono attorneys to take on asylum cases for indigent refugees.