The Front Line

Lorena Rivas on her week at the Karnes detention facility

Published in 2019 Oklahoma Super Lawyers Magazine

When I was a young child, my father was hurt in a very bad accident while working in the oil field. He was disabled—MedFlighted to a hospital and in a coma for a few days. This is when I realized how important it was to have an attorney represent you. With him being out of work, we were struggling financially, and the attorney allowed us to survive. Throughout school, I knew I wanted to have a profession that helped people who are struggling and left with little options, and this was one that directly impacted and helped me. 

In law school, I participated in an immigration legal clinic. There, I saw I was needed: I spoke Spanish, and I could relate to the clients. I represented a couple of individuals: One was a Haitian national, and I helped him avoid removal from the United States; and I also represented a mother and her two young daughters, who were fleeing from domestic violence in their home country.

I started with Fry in November 2015, and I’m currently representing a deaf client in an immigration case. I translate through an ASL interpreter, and I’ve had to use a deaf interpreter as well. It’s one of those cases where I’ve invested so much time and energy and emotion into it. It has made me learn a lot about trying to communicate, and about how much of a struggle minorities in the population have in communicating with authorities and navigating the legal system.

I was recently asked by the University of Tulsa College of Law immigration student section to be their supervising attorney for one week [in May 2019] at the Karnes detention facility, which houses women who are asylum applicants and were recently detained at the border. [The 10 students and I] worked with a nonprofit there, RAICES, and prepared applicants for their credible fear interviews. We helped them draft declarations, and be ready for testimony, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. 

I meet with detainees at the Tulsa jail all the time; this was just a little different. I often see them after they’ve been given their bond and released, but here they were, still being detained, trying to convince someone they have a credible fear. Many times, immigration attorneys are warriors because we’re fighting the system—especially now. But going to Karnes, and seeing these applicants still being detained, it was like going to the front line.

The barriers this administration is putting on us being able to talk to these people, see these people, and do whatever is needed to provide them their right to counsel—that stuck with me the most. They were strict on meaningless things, like where you can put your bag of documents. It was unnecessary, and it was to discourage attorneys from wanting to help. 

I thought that, as an attorney, I’d be working 8 to 5, but this is non-stop work. It’s very intense. It takes a heavy emotional toll. But what keeps me going are the wins—whether it’s gaining status for somebody, keeping somebody here, or getting them out of jail. What also keeps me going is the need. 

With the past administration, we knew procedure stuff. Obviously, the law was set in stone. Now, the attorney general has been constantly issuing decisions. We have to constantly tell the clients that whatever we told them earlier is not valid anymore. I fear the clients don’t think we know what we’re doing, because we don’t know what kind of rules the current administration is going to come down with. 

Right now, I have plenty of immigration cases; I’m lucky that I have plenty of work. But I wish they were under better circumstances.

Tips for attorneys with immigrant clients:

  1. “Be aware of the population you’re serving—what their status is—so they can try to avoid consequences in any legal decision.”
  2. “Don’t be afraid to reach out to an immigrant practitioner when you have questions about decisions relating to your client.”
  3. “Don’t try to dabble in immigration law; this can cause worse problems for immigration practitioners to clean up. But, it is good to have a little bit of knowledge, so you can better represent your diverse clientele.”
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