Fighting for Immigrants’ Rights

Speaker’s Corner From The Practice March/April 2024
A conversation with an immigrants' rights attorney

Dana Walters, associate editor of The Practice, spoke with Adriana Lafaille, a managing attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts, to learn about her career and what the field and her role requires.

Dana Walters: I’d love to start with your journey: how did you begin working on immigrants’ rights?

Adriana Lafaille: Well, I’m an immigrant myself from Brazil. Seeing the immigration system at work and how it was impacting people that I knew made me want to go to law school. I wound up going to law school already very focused on immigrants’ rights and I built my path from there, taking classes that were relevant to that subject and pursuing clinical opportunities. After law school I clerked and then was fortunate enough to get an Equal Justice Works fellowship, which was how I started my time at the ACLU.

Walters: How would you say law school prepared you to work in this space?

Lafaille: Law school gave me a great foundation. I took classes on immigration law and on the extraterritorial limits of the constitution with Professor Gerald Neuman [at Harvard] and took other foundational classes that really helped build the groundwork for what I work on today.

Seeing the immigration system at work and how it was impacting people that I knew made me want to go to law school.

Adriana Lafaille, a managing attorney with the ACLU of MA

I also worked with Professor Deborah Anker on asylum issues while she was updating her treatise, Law of Asylum in the United States. Helping with research on a section of that treatise gave me an introduction into just how complex asylum law is and how difficult it can be for people who seek protection in this country to figure out how to make their experiences fit within the specific structures of the system. And that’s something that has continued to carry me forward. One of the areas of work that I do now involves working with the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC) to review cases that are up before the First Circuit and figure out if there are areas where our voice can be helpful in providing greater context for the court about some of the struggles that asylum seekers face.

Walters: Your work at the ACLU comprises a wide variety of rights issues. Can you share how immigrants’ rights advocacy and litigation fits in?

Lafaille: I primarily work on our immigrants’ rights docket, although I sometimes work in other areas as well. One of the great things about working at an organization like the ACLU is just that there are people working on so many different issues: free speech, racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, and a variety of others. We can build on and consult with and benefit from the experience of people who work on surveillance issues, for instance, which can have an intersection with immigration, or on criminal law issues, which can also have such an intersection with the work that we do.

Walters: Would you consider yourself an immigration lawyer? What kind of lawyer would you call yourself and how do you work with immigration lawyers in your job?

Lafaille: I work on immigrants rights litigation; this typically involves lawsuits in federal court on issues that are impacting a number of immigrants. Usually my clients have other immigration lawyers who represent them before an immigration agency, whether in immigration court or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the immigration benefits arm of the Department of Homeland Security. That immigration lawyer is somebody that we’re always coordinating with in order to make sure that we can pursue the right outcomes for the client.

It’s critical to have humility because it’s hard to know everything in this field. Things change all the time.

Adriana Lafaille

Walters: Given your organization’s work across a range of issues, what unique challenges or nuances do you encounter when working on immigrants’ rights? Do you find this field differs at all in terms of your strategy, approach, or even emotional investment?

Lafaille: This is true not only in immigrants’ rights work, but I’m often working with people who are in the worst possible situation of their lives. For example, I’ll be working with someone who has been detained and their family has just lost the primary breadwinner, and every aspect of their life has been thrown into disarray. Or I’ll be working with someone who is in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or expelled to Mexico under Title 42, and facing an incredibly difficult day-to-day existence, trying to survive along the border. Currently I’m working with folks in Afghanistan who are in hiding because of their connections to the United States and who have applied for humanitarian parole. We are often working with people who are in these extremely delicate situations and the stakes are extremely high for them. Our litigation takes on great importance in their lives and is something in which they invest a lot of hope. The cases we litigate involve issues that impact people beyond our direct clients, but it’s the client’s situation that is in the foreground. Once we begin representing someone, the only thing that matters is how we resolve that client’s situation and get that client to safety.

Walters: How do you balance the emotional aspects of the job? Does your organization talk about secondary trauma?

Lafaille: We do discuss those issues. It can be a challenging area to work in, and I draw a lot of strength from the clients themselves. We have had a lot of victories and it’s a really amazing feeling when your work helps to bring someone to safety. More than anything, what carries me through this work is just the hope of being able to replicate that one more time. I want to continue to fight for people in the hope of helping them on this journey to get to a better place.

Walters: You mentioned that you’ve had a lot of victories. Is there a case that stands out to you?

Lafaille: There are a couple. I worked on a detention class action, and the first person to get out of detention as a result of the rulings in that case was our lead plaintiff. Over the course of a couple of years, more than 200 people were released from detention as a result of the legal ruling in that case. That was incredible to be able to meet some of those individuals and be involved in how the legal ruling was impacting their individual cases. Another very rewarding set of victories involved our work with clients who were subject to MPP. When we secured a legal ruling that required the clients to be allowed to pursue asylum within the United States, that took them out of a very difficult, life-threatening situation, and was a tremendous relief. Life is by no means easy in the United States after everything they have been through, but it has been incredibly rewarding to get to know and work with these clients.

We continue to need more people who are interested in this work and who are ready to roll up their sleeves and jump in.

Adriana Lafaille

Walters: Looking to the future, what should aspiring lawyers know about entering the field? What types of skills or qualities do you think working in this space requires?

Lafaille: There are several things that are important. Like with any litigation work, obviously there’s a lot of research and writing both in advocacy and in courts. There’s certainly a need for strong project management skills in order to pull cases together and run case teams. I also think the client relationship is really important and the ability to have clear communication lines with clients. It’s also critical to have humility because it’s hard to know everything in this field. Things change all the time. You have to be constantly willing to try new things and to look at your work differently. I find it incredibly valuable to consult with multiple people and hear different points of view. I also find that I learn a lot from talking to clients. When I listen to what clients say, sometimes it can help frame the case in a different light for me.

Walters: What do you think the biggest needs in immigration law and advocacy in the coming years will be?

Lafaille: It’s a really difficult time because migration has been such a hot button issue. We continue to need more people who are interested in this work and who are ready to roll up their sleeves and jump in. One of my clients was once asked how she felt about this country after she had been in detention, and her answer was something I’ll never forget. She said, essentially, this is a great country because it’s a place where she could tell her story and where she could fight. With an election coming up, there are a lot of people out there who want to intensify the harm that’s happening to our clients. I think this is still a place where we can fight and that’s really important. We’re lucky to be able to do that. And we continue to need people who are ready to do that alongside all of us.

Walters: That’s a very energizing way to end—thank you for taking the time.

Adriana Lafaille is a managing attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts.

Dana Walters is associate editor of The Practice.