Connecting back to my own humanity

By Michelle Ha, J.D. ’16

via Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs

Michelle Ha, J.D. ’16

Through my experience in the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC) this semester, I had the privilege of representing an incredible woman named Juana* in her application for asylum in the United States.

Juana fled gang violence in Central America with her young daughter and has suffered from threats and abuse that no one should ever have to go through. She is unable to read or write because, while she had wanted to go to school, she had to work in order to help support her family. Her eyes light up when she talks about her children, her husband, whom she calls el amor de mi vida, and her church community. Her voice softens as she remembers how she dreamed of becoming a singer when she was a child.

There are details that demonstrate our true character and make us human, but the law may not provide room for those to come to light. There is no place in her court filings for us to talk about the delicious pastries she baked for us one weekend. There is nowhere we can include how she always washes the dishes from our conversations over tea and hot chocolate before she leaves, no matter how many times we tell her to leave them for us.

This is the case, even though asylum law is one of the most intimate areas of legal practice. As an advocate, you must learn who your client is, her background, experiences, values and beliefs in order to understand her story and how it fits into the legal definition of a refugee as provided for in the Refugee Convention and incorporated into U.S. domestic law.

Asylum law is also the area of law that displays most clearly the role of lawyer as a storyteller and translator. The central piece of evidence in an asylum application is the applicant’s affidavit. The lawyer’s role is to translate the things that happened to the client into a compelling narrative that the law understands to trigger legal obligation.

But there are certain issues of credibility that play out in a court of law that push us, as advocates, to flatten her narrative. Persuasive storytelling is made up of the telling details you are able to weave in, but we think of whether Juana will be able to remember these details when she is being cross-examined on the stand by an adversarial government lawyer. We work with her to parse down the rich details of her life into a clear, condensed, court-ready submission of around 30 pages. I cringe to think that some affidavits, even those written with the help of a lawyer, have less than 10. And I remember the men, women, and children without counsel at immigration court who will face this process alone.

Law lacks a human touch in many ways, but working with Juana, representing her in a case that itself represents her life and receiving her confidence and trust, has been an experience that has connected me back to my own humanity and what justice feels like, and why I came to law school in the first place. In my law school personal statement, I wrote that “justice is a feeling: of right and wrong, balance, compassion, and empathy. Literature depicts the world as it is and engenders, nurtures within us this sense of justice. But laws are the language by which we are able to conceive of how the world should be and articulate the possibilities of change.” Working with Juana during my semester in HIRC gave me the privilege of combining the language of justice with the language of the law in order to make a real difference in someone’s life.

As a 3L looking back on my time at HLS, I am grateful for all the opportunities I had to learn, grow, and prepare myself to serve, and look forward to the new opportunities that my law school training has provided me. I hope that students will continue to pursue opportunities to directly help those in need through providing legal assistance, through participating in student practice organizations, law school clinics, or other pro bono engagements. As the self-professed leaders of our time, we have legal and professional obligations to do so. But most of all, we owe it to ourselves.

*Name has been changed.