Traci Feit Love (third from right) poses for a photo with a group of volunteer attorneys in August in Matamoros, Mexico. Their trip was funded by Project Corazon. CONTRIBUTED BY SANDI BACHOM
Photo: Sandi Bachom
Photo: Sandi Bachom

OPINION: Good lawyers work to counter bad immigration policy

When I left off Tuesday, I was telling you about Traci Feit Love, the Roswell mom who in her search for some way to make a difference in the world founded Lawyers for Good Government.

Although still relatively young, the group is having a huge impact in immigration circles.

“The work they’re doing to help migrants stranded at the border and in detention centers as well as asylum-seekers in Mexico is incredible and inspiring,” said Lauren Menis, a Dunwoody mom and activist.

As it happened, Love had been reading internet reaction from fellow attorneys on the 2016 election and had decided to weigh in, hoping to move beyond just words to action.

Her own Facebook post read something like this: If you’re an attorney, you’re concerned about the outcome of the election, and you’d like to help ensure individual rights are protected, let me know and we’ll talk about it.

The response was so overwhelming, Love created a Facebook group. She wasn’t expecting much of a response, but instead of getting 25 or 50 lawyers, she ended up with 125,000, about 10% of the total number of practicing attorneys in the country.

It’s important to note that this was not about a Republican or Democrat winning.

“We have lawyers in our group from across the political spectrum,” Love told me recently. “I think what really drove that response was the rhetoric and the promises made during the Trump campaign. Particularly concerning were anti-immigrant rhetoric and all the ways in which he seemed to be attacking what the U.S. stood for. Freedom of speech. Freedom of the press. Freedom of religion. The American dream.”

President Donald Trump didn’t just talk about immigrants, he followed that up rather quickly with a ban on travel from several predominantly Muslim countries.

RELATED | 2 years later, Marietta woman feels travel ban’s impact on her marriage

Love harnessed the energy of the Facebook group to create Lawyers for Good Government and the Lawyers for Good Government Foundation, nonprofit organizations that would focus on strengthening democratic institutions, resisting corruption, and defending individual rights.

Climate change, the criminal justice system, immigration, free speech, mass incarceration, and gun control were among the issues that attorneys expressed an interest in addressing.

Traci Feit Love (center) with her interpreter Julie Manrique and an asylum-seeker in Matamoros, Mexico. CONTRIBUTED BY MICHAEL NIGRO
Photo: Michael Nigro

They were all important, but as a new organization, Love clearly didn’t have the infrastructure in place to work on so many issues at once. Which of them should they tackle?

Time, as it often does, chose for her.

“When the Muslim ban was issued, there was such an uproar, I set up an emergency conference call to talk about how we could help,” she said.

Some 800 attorneys joined the call. When it was over, hundreds of them fanned out across the country at their local airports to offer help to whoever needed it. Among them was a 4-month-old baby from Iran who was scheduled for emergency heart surgery in the United States.

Even though she would die without the surgery, the ban prevented her from entering the country. While the rest of us watched horrified as that story unfolded, that was the moment Lawyers for Good Government started its immigrant rights work. Thanks to the lawyers’ help, the baby was able to receive the lifesaving surgery.

RELATED | Medical impact of Trump travel ban: baby’s heart surgery halted, doctor denied entry at border

“I realized the issue was at the intersection of why our group came together and what our strengths were,” Love recalled recently. “We have lawyers everywhere, lawyers who strongly believe immigrant rights ought to be protected and that there needs to be ways for America to welcome immigrants who are going to contribute to the future of the country. The opposite seemed to be happening. From the top, immigrants were being scapegoated, dehumanized.”

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
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Their focus soon shifted, however, from the Muslim ban to asylum-seekers and the administration’s zero tolerance policy primarily targeting Central American parents who were bringing their children here in search of safety only to have them ripped away and put into detention centers.

And so in an effort to help reunite them and defend the rights of these families, the lawyers founded Project Corazon. They call it that because “corazon” means heart and they knew it would take that to make a difference.

Because most of the volunteer attorneys have either small or solo immigration practices or work for nonprofits, they often can’t afford to buy plane tickets or pay for a hotel room, a rental car, or out-of-town meals. The Project Corazon Travel Fund, financed through donations of cash and frequent flier miles from private citizens, was created to provide flights and travel reimbursement to volunteer attorneys.

The project also has a network of about 50 big national law firms that help with other work and is currently representing some 50 immigrants detained last summer by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Mississippi.

“All we are trying to do is stand up for vulnerable people who are being targeted, scapegoated, and treated inhumanely. Their basic human rights are under attack, and we have an obligation to do what we can to help,” Love said.

Katharine Gordon, an immigration attorney based in Minnesota, is among those who have volunteered with Project Corazon, assisting at the Matamoros legal clinics.

“It is impossible to overemphasize how shocking the Remain in Mexico ‘Migrant Protection Protocols’ program (requiring migrants seeking asylum in U.S. to remain in Mexico for the duration of their legal proceedings) is, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley, where access to counsel is even more limited than in Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez,” Gordon said. “I thought I had seen everything until I came to Matamoros, and, as difficult as it was to witness the situation, I am so grateful that through Project Corazon, we are bringing to light these civil and human rights abuses in order to end them.”

Between April and June 2018, nearly 3,000 children were taken from their parents by the United States government and placed in detention centers, shelters and foster homes across the country. And almost a year after the zero tolerance policy that led to many of the family separations was halted in June 2018, immigrant advocacy groups found that some children were still being separated from their parents at the border.

Not only is that not fair, it’s just plain wrong. Thank God and her band of lawyers for having enough heart to try and make things right.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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