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Jack L.B. Gohn: In SIJ cases, we broke it, we bought it

Among the oft-touted secondary benefits of pro bono legal work is making a practitioner feel good about himself. But that feeling can be seductive and deceptive, as all forms of self-satisfaction can. And among the first things threatened are one’s critical facilities.

I recently smacked up against this danger when I got partway through a pair of “SIJ” cases. That unwieldy acronym belongs to cases relating to Special Immigrant Juveniles, mostly youngsters who have made the perilous, unaccompanied journey to the United States from south of our border, have been picked up by immigration officials after crossing into this country and are now seeking to stay.

(Quick aside: there is a pressing need right now for lawyers to take up these kids’ cause. There is good training available and advocacy organizations and translators to hold attorneys’ hands as they do the work. Not usually being seen in family and/or immigration courts should not deter any attorney reading from getting involved.)

It is no secret that, for all our bellicose talk about defending our border, we frequently are better than our words, and this is particularly so when it comes to unaccompanied alien children. The way to permanent residency is more open to them than to many other undocumented immigrants.

And no wonder. You cannot look at these kids and hate on them. They are beautiful and young and full of promise, and any country that turned them away would be not only hateful but stupid. Most of them have seen and endured things no one should have to face, at a young age or any age: gang violence, grinding poverty, illness, hunger. And in our midst they are a natural resource, not a menace.

This is the right and the historically American way to think of them; most of us would not be here if this country had not usually agreed with the view that immigrants, especially young ones, are a good thing. Yet it is tempting to get a little too misty-eyed about the legal work this vision inspires.

I was getting excited about my work on behalf of these young clients, and meditating on how the work of the network of lawyers aiding them was America at its finest, voluntarism reaching out to desperately afflicted youngsters who are part of the promise of the American future.

And then I stopped. I thought about how those youngsters came to be so desperately afflicted in the first place.

Histories of violence

One of my clients is from Honduras who has experienced many of the tribulations mentioned above. And I thought about what is commonly known about the way Honduras became the kind of country where such tribulations were common. Since the turn of the previous century, it was what The Guardian called “the original banana republic,” a nation where governments were freely replaced at the dictate of United Fruit. It is the place where the Reagan administration staged contras to fight against the Sandinistas of Nicaragua.

To be sure, we sent plenty of foreign aid to address its chronic poverty, but that aid largely ended up in the hands of the elites and the military. But the country has the world’s highest murder rate, according to the New York Times, and is a place where “the judicial system hardly functions and impunity reigns.” So it seems as if my client was fleeing a situation largely caused right here in the U.S.

My other client comes from El Salvador. This was a country that has seemingly been “broken” since it emerged as a separate nation from the United Provinces of Central America in 1839. Up until its civil war that began as a coup d’etat in 1979, the responsibility of the U.S. was more routine: participating in a system of buying its produce cheap and propping up a reactionary oligarchy. But starting in 1979, to prevent leftists from taking power, this country intervened decisively, making the country a far worse place to live. We funded the death squads, and trained the military that massacred civilians, leading to over 75,000 deaths. Twenty-five percent of the population fled, 1.5 million to the U.S.

And the brokenness and the emigration have continued even after the peace, so the immigrants keep coming, many undocumented juveniles like my client, to the point that an estimated 19 percent of all Salvadorans now live in the U.S., making them the fifth largest group of aliens.

We, the lawyers who have these comfortable, safe lives can barely imagine the world our SIJ clients come from, or our own unwitting individual contributions to the mayhem and desolation in that world. We are not some kind of Lady Bountiful, bestowing the mercy and grace of a benevolent country on these children and their families and imparting the glories of the American way to these eager new recruits.

Let’s get real. We are merely doing a pitiful little bit to help them reassemble lives our own proxies disrupted. We are helping to re-situate our victims far away from the societies they should be growing up in, but they can’t because our activities wrecked those societies.

In other words: We broke it, we bought it. And at the cost of a few hours of pro bono activity, we are buying it dirt cheap.

Jack L.B. Gohn is a partner with Gohn, Hankey, Stichel and Berlage LLP. The views expressed here are solely his own. See a longer version, with links to his authorities, at