By Attorney Matthew Wurdeman | Originally published in Trial News, March 2019
As children were separated from their parents and put in cages this past May, I felt compelled to do something, anything. I had long been planning to get involved with pro bono immigration work, but there was always a reason why “now wasn’t the right time”—travelling for depositions, prepping for trial, a looming summary judgment motion, the list goes on. In retrospect, it’s embarrassing that it took families being torn apart for nothing more than fleeing persecution and wanting a better life for me to finally get involved.
I didn’t know how to get involved, or what benefit my limited lawyering experience could provide. So I reached out to Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) and asked how I could help. I was told that their primary need for pro bono attorneys was for refugees seeking asylum. In October, I took on an asylum client. Because I work in Tacoma, I took on the case of a refugee, Nestor, who was incarcerated (there is no more appropriate word for it) at the Northwest Detention Center. I’ve only been a lawyer for three years, but I know that this case will be one of the most meaningful cases of my life.
I first met Nestor in a small concrete room at the detention center. He was quiet, timid, and nervous. I would later find out that three attorneys had already rejected his case, and I was basically his last hope. Not that I would have declined to represent him, but I didn’t even know that was an option. Nestor is an Anglophone from Southern Cameroon. Following World War II, Cameroon—then Kamerun—was divided between France and England. England gained control over Southern Cameroon, and France over the rest. Despite its name, Southern Cameroon is a region that borders Nigeria to the north and Cameroon to the south and east. In 1961, Cameroon gained its independence and unified as La République du Cameroun. Anglophones make up about 20% of the population, and have been increasingly marginalized since the late 1980s. In the 1990s, the Southern Cameroon National Council (SCNC) political party formed to advocate for the rights of Anglophone Cameroonians. Paul Biya, Cameroon’s President since 1982, declared the group illegal.
In 2016, a consortium of teachers and lawyers went on strike to protest the use of French in schools, the legal system, and by law enforcement. Many of the leaders of that strike were arrested, imprisoned, and held incommunicado without charge. Nestor became inspired to take action and started attending secret SCNC meetings. Throughout 2017, SCNC began planning coordinated rallies across the world to advocate for the independence of Southern Cameroon.
In October 2017, Nestor led a peaceful protest through the streets of his hometown, Bamenda, broadcasting much of the day on Facebook Live. One of Nestor’s videos showed a military helicopter firing tear gas and bullets at the protesters, an event which the government outright denied.
Two days later, members of the Gendarmerie, a Francophone paramilitary force, began pounding on his door at 5:30 in the morning, shouting, “You know what we are capable of and you know what we will do to your family if we have to break the door down.” Nestor ran to open the door, where four armed gendarmes were waiting for him, with pictures of him at the rally taken from his Facebook page. He was arrested and spent 38 days in deplorable conditions without being charged, appearing before a judge, or getting an opportunity to talk to a lawyer. He shared a four-by-five meter cell with about 30 other SCNC activists. They were not given food (it had to be brought by family members who both knew their loved one was being detained at that particular jail and were able to bribe the guards), there was no toilet, and there wasn’t even space for them to lay down.
Then the torturing began. One by one they were taken to another cell and tortured for the names of other SCNC members. Nestor was pinned down with the soles of his feet exposed and beaten with the broad side of a machete. This continued for three straight days. Not wanting anyone to suffer the same fate as him, he did not give any names. He developed sores on his buttocks and knees because for weeks, unable to stand on his injured feet or lay down in the crowded cell, he was forced to alternate between sitting and kneeling.
To make matters even more trying, when Nestor was arrested his wife was eight months pregnant. While he was in prison she had a very difficult birth and almost died. In a highly uncharacteristic turn of events, a village elder managed to bribe the guards to let Nestor out on bond to care for his wife. One month later, Nestor received word that the Gendarmerie wanted him returned and that Nestor and his family should flee Bamenda immediately. Within an hour, Nestor, his wife, and their three children abandoned the home that they had just purchased, their possessions, and their community, and returned to Nestor’s childhood home in Ndu, where his aunt still lived. There they stayed in hiding for the next three months, until childhood friends informed him that gendarmes had tracked him to Ndu and were asking about him and showing his picture around the village.
Nestor was now faced with a heart-wrenching choice: flee the country, leaving behind his family; or stay, and put both himself and his family in grave danger. He and his wife decided the best thing for everyone would be for him to flee to Nigeria until conditions changed. He took his family to an even more remote village to stay with another aunt and fled to Nigeria. At 37 years old, that was the first time he’d ever been out of Cameroon.
When Nestor was in Nigeria, he met a human rights activist who warned him that he’d be returned to Cameroon if discovered. He advised Nestor that if he could make his way to America, he might be able to get asylum and apply to bring his family over. The thought of being tortured to death in prison, and the possibility of saving his family, convinced him to risk everything and book a ticket to Ecuador (one of a handful of countries Cameroonians may fly to without a visa). Over the next two months, he made the arduous journey north through Colombia, Panama (where he was robbed at gunpoint in the jungle), Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico on foot, bus, and boat. He arrived at the border in Tijuana, Mexico with next to nothing, and applied for asylum.
Upon passing his credible fear interview, he avoided immediate deportation. However, he was detained, and the U.S. filed a report of an inadmissible/deportable alien. After a brief stint in Arizona, he and several other asylum seekers were transferred by plane—chained to one another at the arm, leg, and waist—to the Northwest Detention Center.
Once at the Northwest Detention Center, Nestor was responsible for filing his own application for asylum in response to the notice of deportable alien. This is an adversarial process, and no lawyer is provided to asylum seekers. They often only have a few minutes a day at a typewriter in the detention center library, and little to no resources to research country conditions, obtain declarations, or put together a motion in support of their asylum application. Detainees receive only $1 a day in their commissary accounts, which helps very little in the way of international phone calls. On the other side is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), with unlimited resources and the weight of the U.S. Government behind it, whose attorneys’ sole purpose is to keep people out of the country. The playing field is anything but level.
In my research I came to learn that the situation in Southern Cameroon was only getting worse. Nestor’s family bore the brunt of the government’s increasing crackdown on the SCNC. Two days after we submitted our brief in support of asylum, I received word that Nestor’s wife, Laura, and their one-year-old son had been attacked by the gendarmes. They were at Nestor’s aunt’s house in Ndu; while they were there, gendarmes arrived and smashed the door down, demanding to know where Nestor was. When Laura could not tell them, they threw boiling water on her and their son. Most of the water hit the baby, severely burning his arms and legs. He spent his first birthday—and many weeks after—in the hospital. The pictures were horrifying. The gendarmes said they’d be back, and next time they would kill Laura and her family if she didn’t tell them where Nestor was hiding.
I was presented with a question nothing in law school or my career thus far could have prepared me for: if, and how, to tell Nestor. Every time we met, he would say that he was fine, but was so worried for his family. I knew this news would crush him. Perversely, his family being attacked was good for his case, and I would need to elicit that information from him on direct examination at his asylum hearing. If the Cameroonian government was willing to do that to a one-year-old, imagine what they’d do to Nestor as soon as he arrived back in Cameroon. I had to break the news. It was one of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had. I had no experiences through which to relate to what he must have felt, no way to imagine his helplessness or soothe his anger and guilt.
That day, I filed a motion to accept untimely evidence, with a declaration from Nestor’s brother and pictures of Nestor’s son. The government objected, but fortunately, the judge admitted it, noting that it would have been impossible to submit the evidence any earlier.
In the days leading up to Nestor’s hearing, we spent many hours working on direct and cross-examination. These hearings primarily center around the applicant’s credibility, and even a slight, irrelevant inconsistency can support an immigration judge’s denial of asylum. I wanted him to be prepared for anything the ICE attorney—or judge—would throw at him. That involved coming up with some of the most hurtful and offensive questions I could think of, and I therefore spent a lot of our time together apologizing.
Being a trial attorney can be stressful at times. But I honestly have never been as stressed as I was in the days leading up to his hearing. Literally, Nestor’s life and the life of his family hung in the balance. I have developed profound respect for immigration attorneys who do this every day. I don’t know that I would have the mental or emotional fortitude to do the same.
The night before the hearing, I learned that our immigration judge was one of the five worst in the country, denying 96% of asylum cases that come before him. Of course, I didn’t tell Nestor because I didn’t want to make him any more nervous than he already was. Later I found out that Nestor already knew, and he didn’t tell me because he didn’t want to make me more nervous than I already was.
To our surprise, the judge granted Nestor’s asylum claim without Nestor ever taking the stand. Once the judge admitted the evidence of the attack on Nestor’s son, the government conceded that the elements of asylum were met. I suspect he realized that even if ICE prevailed at the hearing, they would lose on appeal. As I sat there dumbfounded, Nestor dropped his head in his hands and wept. He’d been at the detention center since June, with no lawyer to take on his case, his family in grave danger, his country heading toward civil war, and the certainty of torture and death if he were deported. In a couple hours, he was going to be released a free man with refugee status, capable of petitioning to bring his family to America.
Unfortunately, our immigration system is—perhaps unsurprisingly—not set up to help refugees succeed. If you are granted asylum, you are literally placed outside the chain-link fence of the detention center. Congratulations, you have asylum, you are now homeless, on the side of the road in the industrial sector of Tacoma, with nothing. Unless you already have a support system in place, your chances for success are minimal. AIDNW (Advocates for Immigrants in Detention Northwest) is a wonderful nonprofit organization that aims to meet that need and assist recently released detainees. They have an RV outside the detention center they and help refugees with temporary housing, obtaining government documents, and travel arrangements.
Nestor was released with nothing but a Northwest Detention Center ID, the clothes he arrived at the border with, and a gray sweatsuit that he purchased with the last of his commissary money. Nestor’s brother lives in Virginia, and it was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, so there was no way he could get there. I decided Nestor would come home with me. My colleagues Emy, Meegan, Marla, and Amanda sprang into action and brought him clothes, toiletries, and other essentials.
Nestor came with me to Bellingham to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. Everyone adored Nestor; it was so special for me and my family to experience his first Thanksgiving with him, and was certainly a somber reminder of everything we have to be thankful for. He flew to Virginia the following weekend, and is now living with his brother, applying to schools, and working on getting his family to the U.S. We are frequently in touch, and he calls my “mum” every Sunday.
Nestor’s story, while incredible, is by no means uncommon. Countless immigrants with struggles and stories nearly identical to Nestor’s sit, detained, with no one to represent them. Organizations such as Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) do amazing work, but their resources are limited and there are far too many asylum seekers for those organizations to provide sufficient representation. They rely on pro bono attorneys to help fill that void; even then, many asylum seekers are forced to navigate a hostile and adversarial process on their own—oftentimes in a foreign language—while imprisoned. Nestor’s case was very strong, but I fear without an attorney to write the brief, research country conditions, and present evidence, he would have been deported.
If someone asked you, “If you could volunteer 80 hours of your time and possibly save someone’s life, and the lives of their family, would you do it?” I hope everyone reading this would say, “Of course.” If you think you don’t have the experience or knowledge necessary to take on an asylum case, you do. I had no prior immigration experience. There was nothing special about the representation I provided for Nestor. And when I had questions, NWIRP was there to provide the support I needed. If you’ve thought about doing pro bono immigration work, do it. If you wait for the perfect time, it will never come. If you’ve never thought about doing pro bono immigration work, please consider it. And if you can’t volunteer your time, consider donating to organizations like NWIRP, KIND, and AIDNW.
Many of us went to law school with lofty ideals of helping people, only to lose that passion somewhere along the way. Taking on an asylum client is a lot of work, it’s stressful, and it’s high stakes. But it needs to be done. It’s a meaningful way to help those who need it most. And, if you’re lucky, like I was, you’ll make a friend for life.
Matt Wurdeman is an EAGLE member, practicing medical malpractice and personal injury at Connelly Law Offices in Seattle and Tacoma.